Although I am not a fan of the horror genre I
have become a relatively enthusiastic fan of Stephen King after having read
some of his books released in the last decade, like Billy Summers
(2021), The Institute (2019), The Outsider (2018), 11/22/63 (2011),
and of course the Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and
End of Watch). These books mostly eschewed the horror genre for the ones I
typically read: speculative fiction, thriller, mystery, and science fiction.
However, even when he's not writing horror, King does often tend to bring in
supernatural elements, but in the books of his that I have read and enjoyed
this has not been a fatal impediment to completion. 2022’s Fairy Tale
is one of King’s rare forays into epic fantasy which by its very definition
allows for supernatural themes.
Fairy Tale has a story that can be divided into three parts relatively easily. The three parts are very different from each other and provoked very different reactions in me as a reader. The first part introduces us to the protagonist of the novel, 17-year-old Charlie Reade. Charlie is on the football team and has been raised by his alcoholic father alone since his mother died in a hit-and-run car accident about 10 years before. We also meet Howard Bowditch, an elderly gentleman who lives up the hill from Charlie with his elderly German Shepherd Radar. About 5 years ago Charlie made a promise to God that if his dad stopped drinking then Charlie would owe him a favor, and he thinks taking care of Mr. Bowditch (and Radar) after he suffers a near-fatal fall that leaves him with a broken leg is his way to repay his debt. This first part of Fairy Tale is a heart-warming tale about a teenaged boy falling in love with a dog and selflessly taking care of a senior citizen. It is absolutely delightful to read and an uplifting, enjoyable experience. Five stars.
The second part of Fairy Tale begins with the inevitable death of Mr. Bowditch several months after his recovery from the injury and his revelation to Charlie that the old man had many secrets, the most significant of which is that in his shed contains an underground portal to another land, a mystical and magical place where there is a source of eternal youth. (Bowditch had used the process himself and was well over 120 years old when he died.) Unable to bear the thought of losing Radar to die from old age, Charlie embarks on a mission to take her to the land of Empis to rejuvenate her. When Charlie reaches Empis he encounters several unusual people and places that are reminiscent of or drawn from classical fairy tales. He also discovers that there is a horrible blight on the land called “the gray” which is afflicting the populace, causing pain and disfigurement to all it touches. However, there is a prophecy that a fair and true prince will come to Empis and restore it to its glory and destroy “the gray” which has been caused by someone called Flight Killer. Charlie succeeds in revitalizing Radar by exposing her to the age-reversal process Bowditch had used at great personal risk to them both. After that deed is done he tries to escape but he is caught (and Radar escapes) by a group of zombies known as the Night Soldiers. The second part of Fairy Tale is less enjoyable than the first as we learn more about the impacts of the gray and the plot becomes more suspenseful as Charlie races against time to save Radar's life. The people and characters Charlie encounters in Empis range from the outré to the outlandish and odd. Between three and four stars.
The third and final part of Fairy Tale is really difficult to get through. It becomes a story of incarceration, torture, and violence. Charlie is held captive by the Night Soldiers and forced to fight to the death in repeated one-on-one gladiatorial combat sessions against his fellow prisoners for the amusement of the Flight Killer and his claque of supporters. This section of the book is way too long, and full of death, despair, and disappointment. During this period, Charlie gets in touch with his inner violent self, and, mysteriously his dark hair and dark brown eyes mysteriously starts turning into a blonde, blue-eyed boy. (Part-way through the book I thought that Charlie might be Black or multiracial and that King was doing something interesting with racial assumptions but then this made it clear that Charlie is--and views himself as--a white guy.) Eventually, Charlie leads a successful escape of the few surviving (and strongest) prisoners and destroys most of the Night Soldiers in the process. After reuniting with some of the “good guys” we met in Part 2 (including the revitalized Radar), Charlie and others successfully kill Flight Killer and rid Empis of “the gray” forever. Charlie is gravely injured but manages to make it back to “the real world” with Radar. Through the magic of fairy tales, the time that he spent in Empis converts to only four months in our world, and he is happily reunited with his father in the end. In order to explain his whereabouts (and Radar’s miraculous transformation into a younger dog), Charlie shows his Dad Empis and then they concrete over the entrance to protect both worlds from future contact. The last sections is probably between one and three stars, so probably two stars.
Overall, it’s hard to give a summary evaluation of the Fairy Tale. The book starts off so bright and lovely but gets increasingly dark and difficult as it proceeds. It (amazingly) does end with a happy ending (Radar gets to be young again and Charlie survives), so that probably rounds up the score. It’s a hard book to recommend to others to read, although I would heartily recommend the first 150-200 pages or so to anyone.
Title: Fairy Tale.
Author: Stephen King.
Length: 600 pages.
Date Published: September 6, 2022.
Date Read: February 1, 2023.
OVERALL GRADE: B+/A- (3.5/4.0).