Title: Fairy Tale
Author: Stephen King
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 608 pages
Legendary storyteller Stephen King goes deep into the well of his imagination in this spellbinding novel about a seventeen-year-old boy who inherits the keys to a parallel world where good and evil are at war, and the stakes could not be higher—for their world or ours.
Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself—and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets Howard Bowditch, a recluse with a big dog in a big house at the top of a big hill. In the backyard is a locked shed from which strange sounds emerge, as if some creature is trying to escape. When Mr. Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie the house, a massive amount of gold, a cassette tape telling a story that is impossible to believe, and a responsibility far too massive for a boy to shoulder.
Because within the shed is a portal to another world—one whose denizens are in peril and whose monstrous leaders may destroy their own world, and ours. In this parallel universe, where two moons race across the sky, and the grand towers of a sprawling palace pierce the clouds, there are exiled princesses and princes who suffer horrific punishments; there are dungeons; there are games in which men and women must fight each other to the death for the amusement of the “Fair One.” And there is a magic sundial that can turn back time.
A story as old as myth, and as startling and iconic as the rest of King’s work, Fairy Tale is about an ordinary guy forced into the hero’s role by circumstance, and it is both spectacularly suspenseful and satisfying.
In Fairy Tale, master author Stephen King takes a kind-hearted 17-year-old and sends him on an epic quest to battle forces of evil and save a kingdom.
Also, there’s a very good dog. And because I know this is important for many readers to know up front: The dog will be fine! (Stories that treat book doggos badly can be a deal-breakers for many readers, so now you can rest easy and proceed).
Charlie is a strong, self-reliant boy who loves his father, but he’s also had to shoulder far too heavy a burden in his short life. After his mother’s tragic death, his father became lost to alcoholism, and Charlie had to care for himself and his father through the dark years until his father finally found sobriety. For all that, Charlie is remarkably well-adjusted, but he does think back with regret on the mean-spirited pranks and cruel behaviors he indulged in during the worst of days.
When he hears a dog barking from behind the large, spooky house on the hill, he intends to just move on, until he hears a faint voice crying for help. Charlie discovers Mr. Bowditch, the old man who lives alone in the house, severely injured in the backyard. He calls for help, then makes a decision that this perhaps is his opportunity to atone for the bad behavior in his past, and becomes completely devoted to Mr. Bowditch and his elderly dog Radar.
While Mr. Bowditch is hospitalized, Charlie takes on caring for Radar, and begins work on cleaning and repairing the house. After Mr. Bowditch is released, it’s Charlie who takes on the responsibility of daily care, going far above and beyond would might be expected of a teenager (or even most adults). Through their time together, the two become very close, but Mr. Bowditch holds onto his secrets tightly — although he does tell Charlie how to access his safe and the bucket full of gold pellets stored within, and how to exchange the pellets for the money needed to pay the hospital bills.
When Mr. Bowditch suffers a fatal heart attack some months later, Charlie and his father are shocked to learn that Charlie has inherited the house, the property, and everything it contains. Even more shocking is the cassette tape Mr. Bowditch has left, telling Charlie a strange tale about a journey to a hidden world and the magical device there that allows one to regain youth and health. With Radar in sharp decline, Charlie realizes that following the instructions on the tape might be his only option for saving Radar’s life. And so the quest begins.
Fairy Tale in many ways embodies the traditional Hero’s Journey, with Charlie receiving a call to action, setting out on a quest, gaining allies along the way, sinking to darkest depths (in this case, spending weeks/months (?) in a literal dungeon), before finding redemption and reemergence. It’s brilliantly constructed — we can see the framework and understand what King is doing, while still becoming totally immersed in the magical and dangerous world that Charlie enters.
At the same time, Charlie himself recognizes the influence of stories and how they seep through worlds into realities. Rumpelstiltskin, the Goose Girl, the Little Mermaid, Jack and the Beanstalk — all are present in some variation here, not as literal retellings but as universal tropes that inform the reality that Charlie now finds himself in.
Based on the synopsis, I’d expected the portal elements to kick in pretty early in the story, but in fact, it’s not until around 30% that Charlie first ventures through the passage to the alternate world. The first third of the story is devoted to Charlie’s family’s backstory and his growing relationship with Mr. Bowditch (and Radar!). This is really effective, as it grounds everything that follows in a realistic beginning in our own world, and gives a solid basis for why Charlie acts as he does, both his devotion to providing care to Mr. Bowditch and his actions on his portal adventure.
The flow does seem to lag for a bit in the middle of the story. As I mentioned, there’s a dungeon involved, and Charlie’s time imprisoned there drags on long enough that my interest flagged. Likewise, the sections about Charlie and his fellow prisoners being forced to train for and then compete in a Hunger Games-like tournament to the death felt overly long and drawn out.
Those elements aside, the plot is mostly fast-paced, full of surprises, odd-ball and quirky characters, memorable settings, and a superbly crafted sense of wonder and menace that hangs over every step of Charlie’s journey. Charlie himself is wonderful — smart, caring, and sensitive, but flawed enough that he’s not too good to be true.
Fairy Tale is a big, thick book, but absolutely worth the time and attention. I was captivated, often scared on behalf of the characters, and fully invested in the outcome and the stakes. The world Charlie visits is fascinating, and I would have loved to have spent even more time exploring it at the conclusion of the quest.
Wrapping this up… I highly recommend Fairy Tale! It’s a treat for King fans, but also an easily accessible entry point for those who haven’t read his books before or who feel that his books are too terrifying for them! Yes, there are some frights and scary beings, and as I said, plenty of menace, but this book doesn’t have the absolute terror of, say, Pet Sematary or It.
Fairy Tale is both a coming-of-age story and a tale of a mythical, magical adventure, and it’s a wonderfully engaging read, start to finish. Don’t miss it!