“Fairy Tale” by Stephen King; Scribner, New York, 2022; 608 pages, hardcover, $32.50.

In “Fairy Tale,” you get a taste — or more — of every version of Stephen King there is.

There’s first and foremost Everyday Joe Stephen King, in the form of good-hearted, self-aware teenager Charlie Reade, who tells the story. There’s Literary Stephen King, who goes into John Updike-light mode to form Charlie’s backstory, which includes his mother’s untimely death, his father’s alcohol problem, and his befriending of the old, scary neighborhood hermit who lives in the old house on the hill and keeps an apparently vicious German shepherd. This latter bit is Shirley Jackson Stephen King.

Charlie, although flawed, is almost too good to be true, and you wonder for a long time in the first stage of the story if the fairy tale aspect of “Fairy Tale” isn’t Charlie himself. One day when he’s walking past the mysterious old house, he hears the old hermit’s dog (named Radar) barking, wonders what’s going on, and discovers the old man, Mr. Bowditch, seriously injured in a fall. Charlie calls 911, effectively saving Mr. Bowditch’s life, and proceeds to befriend the solitary, cantankerous old man (as well as, not insignificantly, the dog), sacrificing his high school athletic career to be Mr. Bowditch’s caregiver. I agree with Adolescent Stephen King that the kids are all right, but I’ve never known a teen boy as golden as Charlie.

Emerging slowly and fully formed like a mushroom out of the ground of this fairly plain, character-driven literary story is Mystery Tale Stephen King. Mr. Bowditch is secretly, and mysteriously, in possession of heavy, heavy money. And in his backyard is an old locked shed — a literary device straight out of a James Fenimore Cooper novel — which the old man warns Charlie to stay the hell away from. So of course you know for a mystery-story fact that eventually Charlie is going to go into the shed. The only questions are when and why.

After answers to those plot-driving questions are slowly, skillfully revealed, stage two of the book begins when Charlie indeed breaks into the shed. This launches the main part of the story, and the slow, if well-paced literary-style narrative concerning Charlie and his family, Mr. Bowditch and his dog, turns out to have been a long, long prologue.

Normally the rest of this summary would comprise spoilers, but you can already find it all summarized in detail elsewhere. So I’ll just tell you that in this main part of the story, we encounter Comic Book Stephen King (scenes with villains who look, act and talk like Marvel Comic and Saturday morning cartoon characters); Horror Story Stephen King (dungeons, rats, insects, gory brawling and gladiating); Crass Stephen King (pepperings of lewd and scatologic jokes and scenes); “Elevation” Stephen King (a motif involving spectacular flights of monarch butterflies); Weirdly Inventive Stephen King (“the gray,” a disfiguring disease; some malevolent bad guys called the night soldiers who are basically made of electricity and inflict horrific pain); and then there is Dark Tower Stephen King.

Advertisement

Much as I like most of Stephen King’s writings, I never got attached to his Dark Tower books about a gunslinger questing in a magical post-apocalyptic world. In “Fairy Tale,” there is a seemingly endless stretch of chapters that amount to Charlie drifting from one loosely connected scene to the next, questing in a magical post-disaster world with a six-shooter. Except for “The Lord of the Rings,” I find most Quest stories aimless and boring. I skipped about 200 pages of “Fall” by Neal Stephenson, whose books I otherwise like very much, because they entailed a quest inside a computer program with an objective so murky I could not figure out what it was. In the middle of “Fairy Tale,” I almost stopped reading too. (Actually, I listened to it on audiobook.)

But I didn’t stop, and by enduring the Comic Book passages through appreciation of King’s kitchen table sense of humor, I got through it, recognizing many, though certainly not all, of the many allusions to classic fairy tales such as Rumplestiltskin and the Princess and the Frog. Because you can just look at the chapter titles, it comes as no surprise to find the story has several happy endings.

I can’t recommend “Fairy Tale” as one of Stephen King’s best books because it’s not. (See “Billy Summers” for that.) But it has that magnetic King profluence; “the writing,” like we say, is sound and vivid, as always; and if you are a fan of the Dark Tower books, this somewhat offbeat version of them is likely to capture your attention too, for a couple of days.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: