Fairy Tale is the latest novel from Stephen King, one of my favourite writers ever. The book is a dark fantasy that at times reads like a YA story, where the main character holds the fate of the world in his hands. It’s a fairly straight forward story, once it gets going, that borrows elements from fairy tales that we know from childhood, while mixing in some of the darkness that you’d expect from King.
Charlie Reade is the main character, with the book written in the first person with Charlie telling the story several years after the fact. He’s a teenager who’s life is filled with tragedy, his mother died in a car accident, and his dad has never gotten over it and spent a good few years drinking too much. Charlie prays to God that his dad stops drinking, promising to do something in return. That promise is fulfilled when Charlie is on his way home from school and hears a dog barking in a neighbours garden. The dog’s owner, the elderly Mr Bowditch has fallen and broken his leg. Charlie phones for an ambulance, but doesn’t stop there, caring for Mr Bowditch during his recovery.
This is the best part of the story, as Mr Bowditch and Charlie get to know each other and theirs a real connection between them. It’s almost a really poignant story about age, friendship, and loss. Like most of King’s novels the opening is a real slow-burn, but I loved every page of it. The whole book is almost 600 pages long, with the opening lasting around 150 pages, and I devoured that part of the book. Charlie and Mr Bowditch are both incredibly well written characters, and both feel real. I was fully invested in their lives and would have loved for the story to continue like that. But it doesn’t.
Mr Bowditch has a secret. While he’s in the hospital, Charlie hears noises from the shed in the garden, and then there’s the unexplained bucket of gold pellets in a safe in Mr Bowditch’s bedroom. After Mr Bowditch dies of a heart attack, he leaves everything to Charlie, including his dog, Radar, and the answers to all of Charlie’s questions about the house. Inside the shed is a well that leads to another world, one that resembles something from a fairy tale, and inside that world is danger and magic. A kingdom that is under the tyrannical rule of a monster, but it also contains a large sundial that can be spun around, making anyone sitting on it younger or older.
Charlie is attached to Radar, the dog, and doesn’t want to lose him like he’s lost Mr Bowditch and his mother. In a desperate attempt to keep Radar alive he goes into the magical world to put Radar on the sundial and in the process ends up in the middle of the fantasy world’s troubles. While I do like fantasy stories, I did struggle with this one once that element was introduced. I was loving the story up to that point. It’s a powerful start to the book, then he goes into the fantasy world and the tone changes completely.
Charlie spends a hell of a lot of time walking, which brings the pace to an almost stand still. It’s all important as the world and story is being introduced, but I struggled with it. Even with the book being quite long, it didn’t feel like the world was truly fleshed out. It also reminded me of a YA fantasy that I would have read while in school, with Charlie as the unexpected hero who travels to a new world and becomes the prince of their prophecies. It felt like a completely different story to the one I started, and was absolutely loving. I was still enjoying it, but not to the same level.
Alongside fairy tales, the story borrows a few elements from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, which King fully admits in the story itself, with Charlie reading Bradbury’s novel at one point. There’s a really interesting idea that other writers like Bradbury may have travelled into the other world and found inspiration there, but it’s never explored. If you are going to read a book that has a major plot device being a rotating device that can make you younger or older, then read Something Wicked, it’s a lot better than Fairy Tale, and only a third of the length. I do think the first act of Fairy Tale is something special.
I did enjoy Fairy Tale, but I think the first hundred and fifty pages belong in a different, and infinitely better book. The story of a teenager befriending a old and dying man, feeling that he owes it to God to look after him, is one of the best things King has written. I feel that there’s a really good thriller or horror, there with the mystery in the shed, or maybe even just a more straight forward story reflecting on growing old and lost youth. Instead once the fantasy part of the story got going, I felt disappointed and that it dragged on a bit too much.
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