When one is assured ‘success’ no matter what, where is the incentive to strive beyond the mediocre?
I’ve been reading Stephen King’s books since I was old enough to read adult fiction and, for the better part of 20 years, I’ve reviewed each new novel as it was published. I take absolutely no pleasure in pointing out that King’s work during the past two decades has gone from hit-and-miss to an almost continual series of misses.
The latest arrow to land well wide of the bullseye is Fairy Tale. Once upon a time (if you’ll excuse the pun), I bought each King release on faith, knowing it would likely fall somewhere between ‘pretty good’ and ‘brilliant’. After suffering through The Institute (2019) and Billy Summers (2021), however, I almost didn’t bother with Fairy Tale – especially since I’ve never warmed to King’s fantasy work and the synopsis suggested Fairy Tale would be in the vein of The Talisman (1984). But my wife bought me the book as a Father’s Day present, so I thought, what the hell, go in with an open mind.
The initial hundred pages or so gave me hope. This opening section tells about Charlie Reade, a Chicago kid whose idyllic suburban life is upended when his mother is killed by a careless driver. Charlie’s grief-stricken father spirals into alcoholism and Charlie – sad, angry and disenfranchised – falls in with a local delinquent kid and gets up to all sorts of anti-social mischief. Coming to understand he and his father are on a trajectory towards perdition, Charlie does the only thing he can think of: he prays that his dad will get sober. Which, in time, he does.
Sometime later, Charlie is returning home from baseball practice and passing the ramshackle old dwelling all the local kids refer to as the ‘Psycho House’. He hears a German Shepherd barking itself hoarse and a faint voice calling for help. Recalling his promise to God that he would do anything if his father could beat alcoholism, Charlie ventures around back and finds a crotchety old man, Mr Bowditch, has fallen from a ladder and broken his leg. Charlie not only calls an ambulance and looks after the old man’s aging dog, Radar, he takes it upon himself to care for Mr Bowditch during his convalescence.
While Charlie’s motivations and selflessness aren’t especially convincing, the storyline and characters to this point have the sort of down-home authenticity that has historically typified King’s best work. It’s certainly better than the mangled attempt of same in Billy Summers. The reader cares enough about Charlie and his amends to wonder where it’s all going, and when King introduces the first fantastical elements they’re intriguing enough.
But then Mr Bowditch dies of a heart attack and Radar’s health begins to deteriorate, so Charlie decides to venture into a parallel world, Empis (the entrance to which is secreted in Mr Bowditch’s shed), to find a magical sundial that will give Radar back her youth. As an animal lover I guess I can just about buy this conceit, but the problem (one that has plagued King’s work again and again in the 21st century) is Charlie’s initial pilgrimage through this world in his quest for the magical sundial is catastrophically dull. It is King’s attempt at world-building and introducing characters who will play important roles in the story further down the line, but nothing in this interminable passage is interesting or memorable. Charlie meets someone, stays at their house, eats something, worries about his dog, continues on, meets someone else, sleeps somewhere, keeps walking. For close to 200 pages this goes on, before he finally arrives at the magical sundial and restores Radar’s health. Then he’s captured and put in a dungeon, where he again does little but talk, eat, and occasionally fight his cell mates in training for a cruel tournament held to amuse members of the vile ruling class.
Fairy Tale finally develops a little energy as it lumbers towards its climax, but by then it’s too late – the reader just wants the damned thing to end. I don’t know how many times I almost abandoned this chore of a book. If I had, it would have been the first King novel I DNF’d in nearly 40 years as a fan. But trudge onward I did, more out of a sense of duty than anything.
While tedium is Fairy Tale’s biggest flaw, it certainly isn’t the sole one. King tries to make his book a sort of homage to fairy tales both Grimm and Disney, yet it’s so lacking in finesse or subtlety, and the links are often so tenuous or contrived, that the simple storyline is transmuted into a weird tapestry of half-formed patterns, fourth wall breaks, obvious remarks, and dangling threads. We have wolves that do nothing but provide atmosphere and then disappear without explanation. We have people who rise from the grave and do nothing. We have ‘night soldiers’ that are scary for about two minutes and then become repetitive clone-like creatures who ultimately meet their fate off stage. We have royal characters who, in the face of an apocalyptic threat, just give up and go into hiding until ‘Prince Charlie’ arrives on the scene… even though Charlie does nothing they could not have done themselves.
And again, like so much of King’s modern work, Fairy Tale doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a coming-of-age story? Is it quest fantasy? Is it an homage? Is it a fairy tale? The author doesn’t seem to know himself and thus the book turns into another mish-mash ala Billy Summers.
Speaking of recurring problems, Fairy Tale exhibits nearly all of them (although its fantasy themes mean we’re largely spared the drunk-uncle political commentary that so diminished The Institute). There’s the lazy mishandling of a young character (Charlie watches lots of TCM with his dad so he conveniently knows seventy-something King’s movie references, while a brief friendship with an ‘alternative’ girl gets him into reading H.P. Lovecraft stories). We have King’s indolent, lifeless writing, which reiterates how desperately he needs an editor – I guarantee if this novel were submitted blind to publishers, it would receive a litany of form rejections on its prose alone. And after discovering inconsistencies in his explanation for how Charlie can communicate with the denizens of Empis, King – rather than go back and try to rectify the problem – simply dismisses it with a glib line to the effect of, “Hey, it’s a fantasy world, who knows how this stuff works?”
On top of all these recurring issues, King manages to add a few new ones. Most annoying of all is THE DEAF CHARACTER WHO SPEAKS ENTIRE PARAGRAPHS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. If further proof were needed that King’s books are now subject to almost no editorial oversight, here it is. There is not a practicing editor on earth who would see this and fail to call it into question. Only that’s too polite – most would stop and mutter, “Are you fucking serious? This is unreadable.” (The ‘gray’ plague sweeping through Empis leaves several other characters with deformities that affect their speech, meaning King has to translate every second exchange of dialogue – something that quickly becomes tiresome for author and reader alike.)
To reiterate, I take zero pleasure in the decline of King’s work. For most of my teens and twenties he was an intellectual lodestar, someone whose world view I respected and whose writing I tried to emulate. Once in a while now I return to his old novels, in part because I like to experience them again, but more and more to remind myself their quality wasn’t an hallucination or a younger man’s questionable judgment. Even one of King’s weaker books, such as Christine (with its somewhat flabby midsection), fairly zings with energy by comparison – it’s the product of an enthusiast doing something he loves. Fairy Tale, by contrast, reminds me of Elvis Presley going through the motions on stage during the waning months of his life – bloated and yet, ironically, a shadow of his former self. Yet, perhaps that analogy isn’t quite on the mark, because even in the twilight of his career Elvis could still bring the goods on stage; I haven’t properly enjoyed a King novel since Revival (2014), and even that appears to have been an aberration. Which raises the question: How can a book as plodding and sloppy as Fairy Tale have so many four and five star ratings on Goodreads?
Well, even corpulent, drug-addled Elvis had legions of adoring fans and when I read breathless praise for King’s latest tome I’m put in mind of something John D. McDonald wrote in his introduction to Night Shift (1978). “Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity.” King is so thoroughly guaranteed critical and popular acclaim now that he has lost any sense of objectivity. When one is assured ‘success’ no matter what, where is the incentive to strive beyond the mediocre?