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Cover Art for Fairy Tale by Stephen King - Blue bricks appearing alternately to be either an eye or a stairway - a boy and a dog on opposite sides of the centermost portion

“As you probably know, dear reader, it’s the stories of our childhood that make the deepest impressions and last the longest.”

At the end of the day, in the simplest way, King’s Fairy Tale is a story of a boy and his dog. It’s also an all encompassing tribute to the fairy tales we are told as children, the heroes and monsters who live in our heads until we die.

Fantasy readers like myself who generally steer clear of King because well, nightmares, may find this book well worth the price of admission. Naturally, each fairy tale represented in the adventures of Charlie Reade (the main character) and Radar (Charlie’s dog) carries the distinct, unsettling “flavor” usually attributed to the “King of Horror.”  While worth mentioning, this flavor is in no way off-putting. Indeed, there are very few true heroes here and most of the monsters manage to have sympathetic moments along the way.

Charlie is an average, mid-western high school kid who just happens to be in the right place at the exact right moment to rescue an elderly, curmudgeonly, reclusive neighbor when he falls off his ladder, breaking his leg. The neighbor, Mr. Bowditch lives in a decaying old Victorian house at the top of Sycamore Street Hill with his dog, Radar, an equally old and notoriously foul-tempered German Shepherd. Mr. Bowditch is taken to the hospital for surgery on his leg, leaving Charlie to care for Radar. Without knowing why, Charlie feels it it is his responsibility to take care of not only the dog, but Mr. Bowditch’s home, and eventually, Mr. Bowditch as well. Through the course of Mr. Bowditch’s convalescence, the trio become fast, if unlikely friends, and Charlie discovers that the old man has SECRETS. Of course he does!

The shed in Mr. Bowditch’s backyard is far more than a repository for garden tools and ancient lawnmowers. It disguises a stairway to another world. At the bottom of those steps is a world of two moons, perpetual cloud cover, oversized insects, giants, familial curses, crumbling kingdoms, swords, damsels in distress. Empis, the otherworld as Charlie initially calls it, is in danger from the tyranny of a mad-king. It is also home to the only hope Charlie has to save Radar’s life. Deep in the center of Lilimar, one of Empis’s main cities, is a wheel which will turn back time for any who are brave, or desperate, enough to ride. And Charlie is desperate. He and Radar journey deep into the heart of Empis to Lilimar, meeting friends of Mr. Bowditch from long ago and who believe Charlie is the fulfillment of an old prophecy. They believe he is the promised prince who will right all the wrongs and save their world.

Charlie is unsure but, if it means saving Radar, he’s willing to do whatever is asked of him. But, like all teenagers, he battles his own regrets, sorrows, and insecurities with the same determination and hope endemic to youth. By turns naive and coldly realistic, the self-effacing Charlie is a young adult protagonist readers can genuinely like. After all, who can fault a guy who is willing to battle fantastical beasts for the sake of his dog?

In the pages, readers will discover (or re-discover) the darker shades of the Shoemaker’s Elves, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and other childhood favorites woven throughout the narrative. All of course with the expected Kingsian twists and interpretations. Even the standard “happily ever after” ending isn’t so much HEA or even “happy for now” but it does land squarely in the “best possible outcome” camp. This book easily earns its place on the dark fantasy lists. The Brothers Grimm would be very, very proud. Disney not so much.

Fairy Tale is an engaging, magnetic read which is difficult to put down. Oddly, and personally inexplicable, it also gave me some extreme anxiety. Maybe I was worried about the dog. Maybe I was frustrated by some characters’ insistence on waiting for rescue instead of rescuing themselves. I dunno. What I know for certain is that when I forced myself to close the pages and turn out the lights, I didn’t feel good in my body. It was hard returning to the “real” world. I’m not telling other anxious readers to skip this one, not at all. But maybe…don’t read it right before bed. Not because of bad dreams just…for peace of mind. I read to get out of my head, not to be trapped in it.

Published in September 2022, King wrote this departure from his usual oeuvre of horror during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when we were all seeking a diversion from larger worries. Fairy Tale is a refreshing, if somewhat dark, distraction. You don’t need me to tell you that King is a master storyteller. That was decided decades ago. What you might need to hear, however, is that even if his books usually scare the bejeezus out of you, this one won’t. Instead, Fairy Tale will make you laugh, growl with irritation, hope, daydream, worry, and howl in triumph.

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

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