“A boy’s quest in a fantasy realm” could refer to at least four different Stephen King stories. Both “The Dark Tower” and “The Stand” feature a young boy. In “The Talisman,” 12-year-old Jack Sawyer ventures into another world to save his mother. And so when Stephen King released “Fairy Tale,” the story of a teenage boy in a fantasy realm who must fight an evil lord to save his dog, there were good reasons to expect an unoriginal, if decent, tale that fits right into King’s bibliography. But the straightforward narrative, heavily drawing on his favorite motifs and folk tales, makes for a surprisingly innovative, enjoyable story.
The novel follows 17-year-old Charlie Reade, a high school student from rural Illinois. One day, alerted by the barking of a dog, he rushes to the manor of a reclusive, elderly man named Mr. Bowditch, who has broken his leg after falling off a ladder. Charlie becomes Bowditch’s caretaker, and in the process, befriends the man and his dog Radar. But Bowditch is hiding much more than a kind heart under a grumpy façade: Under the floor of his old shed, a well leads into the magical realm of Empis, whose treasures — gold and an enchanted dial with the ability to de-age — Bowditch has been taking advantage of until becoming bored with life.
Months pass. Bowditch dies of a heart attack, but not before sharing his secrets with Charlie. The boy, knowing the dog will soon follow in his owner’s footsteps, decides to venture down the well, in the hopes of prolonging Radar’s life. His mission, however, quickly changes from saving the dog to saving the land of Empis from the evil lord who destroyed it.
There isn’t much more to the story’s protagonist than meets the eye. King writes,“You may have gotten a pretty good feeling about young Charlie Reade by this point, I’d guess—sort of like a hero in one of those YA adventure movies … strong and tall, no acne.” He insists Charlie’s “not so nice”: His protagonist is supposed to be an average teenage boy who pulled a couple mean pranks such as putting firecrackers in a mailbox or “dogshit on the windshield” of a car. But all things considered, the initial diagnosis is correct. Charlie is a noble character who risks his life for his dog and in the process saves the world.
But there’s no need for King to defend his choices. There's a certain charm to the hero’s simplicity and unambiguity, his moral rectitude and selfless drive, even if it makes the first third of the book read like Nora Roberts’s or Danielle Steel's attempt at a high school protagonist and his adventure. Charlie himself never quite becomes a three-dimensional character. But in the end, he and the story are none the worse for it.
The narrative itself isn’t any more complex. The self-imposed mission is not straightforward: there are some twists and turns. Charlie faces setbacks. But ultimately, as a fairytale prince, if not the prophesied one, he is set to prevail.
What the story lacks in terms of complexity, it makes up for in the richness of its world and details. King doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the book’s influences. Charlie himself remarks that the well leading to a world full of gold and a giant guarding it bring to mind the image of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Two of his antagonists are described as looking like Grimms’ “Rumpelstiltskin.” A fountain palace was inhabited by a mermaid, but not “Ariel, the Disney princess.”
But the references to fairy tales and King’s frequent returns to his own leitmotifs don’t bring with them a sense of derivativeness or unoriginality. “Fairy Tale” is more reminiscent of a palimpsest, one that doesn’t simply cover old manuscripts, but skillfully incorporates the visible traces of folk tales and common fable motifs — or perhaps a collage arranging cultural and literary tropes into an uncomplicated but entertaining narrative.
“Fairy Tale” checks off all the boxes of a Stephen King novel. The main protagonist — a resident of a small town — has his life uprooted by a fantastical event. There’s alcoholism involved. The only thing missing is one of the protagonists being an English major. But King doesn’t simply repackage his favorite motifs. By mixing them with folk tales, he creates a refreshingly original story that he manages to execute well, perhaps precisely because of its simplicity.
—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @zacharylech.