Books

Stephen King’s New Book Is the Best Kind of Page-Turner

Fairy Tale will remind you how much fun reading can be.

We're inside a cave, looking out through the opening. We can see a huge field full of sunlit poppies like in the Wizard of Oz. Silhouetted against the poppies, standing at the mouth of the cave, are a teenage boy and a German shepherd.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by ananaline/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Imagesines/iStock/Getty Images Plus, mariakbell/iStock/Getty Images Plus, ValuaVitaly/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and TomasSereda/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I hear more and more people lately complaining of reading slumps, an inability to concentrate and really sink into a book caused by—who knows? The lingering pandemic? TikTok? Climate dread? “I will read,” thinks the title character in Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, Lucy by the Sea, as she comes in from a walk. “But there was nothing I wanted to read. I could not read.”

I can recommend a cure for that, though it might be a bit strong for Lucy’s taste: a good old-fashioned Stephen King fantasy-horror epic. Happily, there’s a new specimen: Fairy Tale. Like its predecessors in the King canon—especially The Eyes of the Dragon, the Dark Tower series, and The Talisman (co-written with Peter Straub)—it’s sometimes grisly, sometimes tense, and sometimes a bit goofy. You’ll inhale Fairy Tale in big 100-page swaths without the slightest effort or strain, and you’ll be grateful that there are 600-plus pages of it to remind you several times over how much fun that kind of reading experience is.

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The book’s alternate world combines Grimmian fairy-tale elements with Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but it takes a while to get there. The more of them I read, the more I appreciate King’s set-ups. His hero, high school senior Charlie Reade, doesn’t begin his trek down the stone stairs spiraling underground in his neighbor’s backyard until about a quarter of the way through the book. Not for King, the brisk dispensing of the mundane real world in favor of the thrilling vistas of Narnia or Wonderland. Instead, he first carefully builds a portrait of Charlie’s present-day life in the small Illinois town of Sentry’s Rest.

When Charlie, an only child, is 8, his mother goes out to pick up a fried chicken dinner for the family and is hit by a truck skidding on an icy bridge grating. His insurance-adjuster father drowns his grief in alcohol, and for a while Charlie himself goes wrong, palling around with a bad seed and engaging in destructive and occasionally cruel pranks. His father loses his job, the bills pile up, and Charlie begins to wonder if they’ll end up living in their car or under a highway overpass.

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In desperation, the otherwise unchurched boy resorts to offering God a bargain to make his father stop drinking: “If you do that for me, whoever you are, I’ll do something for you.” Not long after, a fellow adjuster drops by the Reade household and persuades Charlie’s dad to come to an AA meeting. Charlie considers his father’s sobriety a “miracle,” and himself to be in debt. He volunteers for roadside clean-up and collects donations for UNICEF, but he can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t enough until, as a teenager, he discovers the reclusive old man who lives up the street lying at the bottom of a ladder with a broken leg.

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Injecting the uncanny into the everyday is a Stephen King trademark—the quintessential example being the creepy messages a ghost spells out with alphabet magnets on a refrigerator in 1998’s Bag of Bones. This isn’t that kind of King novel, however. Apart from some weird scrabbling noises emanating from old Mr. Bowditch’s tool shed, this section of the novel is devoted to Charlie’s relationship to his father and his growing friendship with the cranky geezer, a bond cemented by their shared love for Mr. Bowditch’s aging German shepherd, Radar. Some might call this a slow start for an adventure story, but it doesn’t drag a bit. Charlie is a good kid, but he’s all too aware of his capacity to behave otherwise. He quits the school baseball team to take care of Mr. Bowditch once the old man gets out of the hospital, but a not insignificant motivation for this is his desire to spend more time with Radar, who is nearing the end of her life.

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When Charlie discovers that Mr. Bowditch has been hiding a portal to another world in that wood shed, the novel’s intentions come into focus. The kingdom of Empis, at the other end of a long tunnel filled with bats and the occasional oversized cockroach, is a realm of shoemaker’s cottages, goose girls, and big bad wolves you don’t want to run into at night. It’s a fairy-tale place, but one pointedly rooted in the older, darker, and more violent incarnations of the tales. Charlie finds many opportunities to reflect on how it clashes with the Disney versions, even as his brown hair becomes blonde, his brown eyes turn blue, and the locals begin to speak of him as the prince destined to save them from a terrible curse. There will be a dangerous quest in a haunted city, a beautiful exiled princess, man-eating giants, a stint in a dungeon policed by electrified skeleton soldiers, and a hideous being from yet another dimension intent on corrupting not only Empis but Charlie’s world as well.

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The dedication of Fairy Tale reads, “Thinking of REH, ERB, and, of course, HPL,” references which Charlie, a devoted reader of early 20th-century pulp fiction, would surely have no trouble identifying as Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), and H.P. Lovecraft. If modern-day retellings of fairy tales can lack the earthiness of the originals, pulp adventure tales, while often enormous fun, aren’t typically concerned with emotional depth. But Fairy Tale supplies both fleshly human frailty and a fully functional heart. Its plot is driven not by its hero’s desire to seek his fortune, but by something as potent as a boy’s love for his dog.

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That love is childlike and simple, and Charlie is willing to risk his life to save Radar. Any dog lover can understand Charlie’s extravagant devotion to a creature who adores him. It’s that love that draws him into Empis, but it’s Charlie’s love for his father, rich and complex, that brings him back. The attachment Charlie feels to his dad is partly the elemental bond between parent and child and partly the hard-won reward for what they have been through together and what they have done for each other. Neither boy nor man has any hesitation to express their feelings, since they both know all too well how suddenly those we love can be whisked away. The early pages King spends in portraying their relationship reverberate throughout the novel, deepening it.

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There are times during Fairy Tale when Charlie is obliged to tap into “that dark well I’d discovered as a child, when my father seemed bent on honoring the memory of his wife, my mother, by crashing and burning and leaving us homeless. I had hated him for awhile and hated myself for hating.” Hate is as great a force in this novel as love, and it turns out to be the taproot of Empis’ curse. An abiding theme in King’s work is that every human being has the potential to do evil, and that only by acknowledging this and remaining vigilant against it can we hope to live moral lives. (Lovecraft, in particular, was a writer who never confronted his own propensity for hatred, and his work is the worse for it.) But hatred is also a kind of power, especially for a storyteller, and King had me madly hungering for the moment when his novel’s eminently loathsome villains got their comeuppance.

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Good, evil, a kingdom to save, monsters to slay—these are the stuff that page-turners are made from. The strokes are broader and more crowd-pleasing than in such recent major King works as The Institute, a novel in part about how people convince themselves that worthwhile ends justify unspeakable means. And it’s not essentially a crime or detective novel like Billy Summers or his Holly Gibney books. Fairy Tale is both sweeping and self-contained, comic and scary, touching and bleak. By the end of the novel, Charlie must make a decision as inevitable as it is painful. It’s the right thing to do, but he knows that only because he understands now just how easy it is to do wrong.

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