Stephen King’s newest novel, “Fairy Tale,” follows a teenage boy from Illinois named Charlie Reade who saves an old man’s life. The old man, a stranger named Mr. Bowditch, has an aging dog named Radar, whom Charlie immediately and irrevocably falls in love with. As Mr. Bowditch recovers from his life-threatening injury, Charlie takes care of him and his increasingly arthritic dog. Mr. Bowditch has a weird backyard shed and an even weirder amount of solid gold pellets, but Charlie takes this all in stride.
Of course, this is King we’re talking about. “Fairy Tale” clocks in at a whopping 607 pages (not surprising for fans of King, who are used to page counts of over a thousand with his longer novels like “The Stand” and “It”), and this heartwarming story — boy, dog, old man — is only the first 200. Past those first couple hundred pages (if you get that far), the story starts to more closely resemble the strange and horrific worlds King is famous for.
It takes King a long time to actually get to the meat of the story. Two hundred pages with the relative mundanity of Sentry, Ill. leaves you only 400 or so pages to spend in the land of Empis, the alternate world that lies at the bottom of a winding set of stone steps inside that weird shed in Mr. Bowditch’s yard. As soon as we enter Empis with Charlie, you can’t help but wonder why on Earth (get it?) we spent so much time in Illinois when there was a world with giants, talking crickets, curses, reanimated skeletons, two moons and magical butterflies lurking just beneath our feet. King is famous for taking his time when it comes to world- and character-building in his novels, so the beginning of “Fairy Tale” being somewhat normal isn’t surprising. After all, his novels in the 800-page range like “Under the Dome” and “11/22/63” rely on incredibly intricate world-building of places recognizable to us — just familiar enough that King can then make them feel wrong. But spending a third of the book recounting a world that looks just like ours leaves the world of Empis — one we as readers are ostensibly much more interested in — feeling less fleshed out.
Maybe we spent so much time in Illinois getting to know our main character, Charlie, so we could understand his decisions in Empis and the changes he undergoes as he becomes the Empisarians’ heroic prince. Still, after I closed the book, I yearned for more of this surreal world King created. This, of course, is a testament to the worldbuilding he can do in the last two-thirds of the novel; Empis is richly populated by a large cast of characters and operates on a different logic than our world. It was hard not to be pulled in.
King, as usual, succeeds in creating a sense of wonder and curiosity in his readers. His creations of both people and places have an internal logic in which even magic makes sense. As a storyteller, we never doubt him for a moment. The characters of “Fairy Tale” both satisfy and surprise us with their wholeness; Empis feels just as real as Illinois.
This is not to say that “Fairy Tale” doesn’t falter. Even looking past the somewhat awkward pacing of how long it takes for Charlie to switch worlds, King, unfortunately, seems to fall back on a trope that is all too common in horror — equating facial disfigurement or limb differences with being scary and/or pitiful. This trope sometimes attempts to hide behind the guise of body horror, defined as “a subgenre of horror that intentionally showcases grotesque or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body.”
The line between body horror and ableism is a thin one to walk and is easily crossed, but think about it this way: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movies (although not the most elegant examples) use specific, immediate and visceral imagery to terrify the audience — we can feel the pure, nauseating transgression of our bodies when we see a person being put on a meat hook or dismembered, and that disgust is what creates our horror. “The Witches” (2020), on the other hand, uses facial disfigurement and limb difference as shorthand for the audience, denoting the witches as evil. In the case of “Fairy Tale,” there is a curse/disease that turns those who live in Empis into “gray people” — their skin turns gray and their features (and, it is implied, their internal structures as well) slowly disfigure until they eventually die.
King doesn’t fall into the more common and arguably more concerning category of equating disfigurement with innate evil, but he does render the gray people somewhat helpless and in need of a (white, able-bodied) savior in the form of our very own Charlie (whose brown hair and brown eyes quite literally transform into blonde hair and blue eyes while he’s in Empis). Those in Empis who are immune to the grayness are people who are related by blood to the royal family — the problems there probably go without saying. While misguided in its execution, this may have been King’s take on a mass disabling event, given that the novel was started in late 2020 and he mentions COVID-19 in the acknowledgments.
Yes, the disability-as-horror trope did color my opinion of “Fairy Tale.” If you’ve never read Stephen King, this wouldn’t be my first recommendation. I would instead point you elsewhere: towards “The Langoliers” for short stories, “Carrie” for novellas and “Pet Sematary” for novels, among others. But for those who enjoy King’s quick-witted prose, fast-paced action and mind-bending ideations, “Fairy Tale” won’t disappoint. Charlie is a typical King hero, brave but humble, and “Fairy Tale” contains the classic King fight between good and ancient evil. King masterfully engages retrospection in Charlie’s narration, giving the reader a sinking feeling in their stomach by letting us know that whatever happens next, older Charlie regrets it. It was a good story, and engaging — I found myself struggling to keep from skipping my eyes down the page to find out what happens next. But as a longtime fan of King’s work, “Fairy Tale” isn’t joining “The Shining” on my list of favorites anytime soon.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.