The Bottom Line: Decades into his illustrious career, Stephen King continues to reinvent himself. Fairy Tale is one of King’s best.
One of the best things about being Stephen King is no doubt the freedom to do as he pleases.
Decades after being crowned the Master of Horror, Stephen King has spent much of the 21st century stretching the limits of the genre, working well outside of traditional boundaries, and generally doing as he pleases. The result has been several masterpieces, including 11/22/63, Mr. Mercedes and The Institute.
Earlier this year, King released Gwendy’s Final Task, which focused largely on a character’s struggles with dementia and the use of dangerous magic to prolong the inevitable for as long as possible (while saving the planet from darkness). Similarly, much of Fairy Tale focuses on the terrors of mortality, and attempts – both courageous and risky – to cheat death.
In terms of length, it’s a huge book. Weighing in at a hefty 24 hours of audiobook listening, King spends roughly the first 25% of the novel – or what might pass for a full-length book for many writers – firmly rooted in midwestern America. Charlie, an amiable teenager, carries a heavy psychological load. He’s a star athlete, and at home, he and his father have spent years forging a strong relationship after the death of his mother and his father’s subsequent alcoholism. Having made a deal with God, Charlie is looking for atonement when he has a chance meeting with Howard Bowditch, an aging neighborhood crank who has fallen off a ladder.
To Howard’s great surprise, Charlie cares for his dog, Radar, while he’s in the hospital. He eventually becomes Howard’s paid caretaker, although Charlie is open about the fact that he would help nurse Howard back to health for free. It’s a heartwarming, family-oriented tale that’s satisfying on its own, but all the while, King periodically serves up hints that there’s far more to Howard than meets the eye.
By the end of the book’s first act, it’s clear that there’s something very strange going on in Howard’s locked backyard shed. And soon, Howard leaves Charlie a tape revealing a hidden world, and along with it, a challenge, should he accept it.
The result is a story of a heroic boy, his dog, and an epic battle of good and evil.
Longtime King fans pining for elements of horror will find it, although they’ll need to be patient. As you might gather from the title, what follows Charlie’s real-world struggle is an adventure that is quite self-conscious in its mining of classic fairy tales. But even as it borrows from classics, giving credit where due all the while, its’ safe to say that Fairy Tale is one of a kind. Highly recommended.