Stephen King’s new novel, Fairy Tale, feels like a homage to a lot of stories and, indeed, storytellers – perhaps not surprising from the title.
Many of the references throughout the story of Charlie Reade and his travel to the world of Empis are overt – Disney, Grimm Fairy tales, Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft, but there are as many snippets and ideas taken in other directions from King’s own work.
Charlie befriends curmudgeonly old Mr Bowditch and his dog Radar; I don’t think it’s too much of a plot spoiler to say that the shed on Bowditch’s land leads to somewhere…different. And if there are similarities between that and Jake Epping’s relationship with, and legacy from, his friend Al Templeton in 11/22/63, then rest assured the doorway here leads somewhere very different.
While King might have been writing more ‘grounded’ fiction recently (Billy Summers, the Bill Hodges trilogy, etc) he’s also been mixing it up with more ‘fantastical’ works like Revelation, The Institute and Elevation, and in Fairy Tale he combines the two states: it is, in effect, 150 pages before ‘the weird stuff’ starts happening. For some that may feel like a too slow build – for King fans it feels like a return to the many well drawn out portrayals of teenagers King has written about so often.
The closest comparisons, given the ‘different worlds’ basic premise are, of course, going to be the author’s Dark Tower series and The Talisman (fittingly, if sadly, I read Fairy Tale on the day it was announced King’s co-author of the latter, Peter Straub, passed away). Considering the vein from the Dark Tower that runs through so much of King’s work, there’s relatively little mention here. There’s a quote from a certain Browning poem early on, and a single line late in the book which will be familiar to readers of the series, but otherwise, not so much. The Talisman feels a closer parallel to the story: the protagonist may be older, and the journey may be less fragmented between worlds, but it had that same feeling for me.
All of the above may be a bit too fan-focused. At the end of the day, is it a good story?
And the answer, for me, was that yes, it’s a rich, satisfying story. In some ways, it’s the story of stories. King is long enough in the tooth to recognise and embrace the influences from oldest folklore to more recent cultural phenomenon of the mythic quest and the hero’s journey. (No coincidence he points out the princess in the tale ‘Leah’ could be Princess Leia.
It’s a long book for your average author, but very much in the midway range for King – clocking in at around 570 pages, and one to read. By that, I mean, don’t wait for the tv/ film adaptation that is bound to come; the level of self or cultural reference, much of it recognised and pointed out by the narrator/ protagonist, has the potential to work less well than it does on the printed page. Instead, give yourself a chance to get into the story and enjoy the world and characters created with your own imagination; like Charlie in the book, you’ll be set on the right path by someone who’s been there and done it.