One of the most purely enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had reading was in 2006, when over the course of a few breathless months I read all seven books in Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. I was swept away by King’s thrillingly rendered fantastic worlds, full of creatures both terrifying and delightful, bursts of violence, humor and melodrama in equal measure, and an epic battle between good and evil that never seemed foregone as to the winner.
I got that same feeling reading King’s latest novel, “Fairy Tale,” published Tuesday. It’s a return to fantasy form for the novelist who in more recent years has tended toward detective tales and sci-fi-inflected horror. It’s a sweeping yet intimate story about a boy, his dog, the fantastic hidden world he uncovers and the choices he must make.
In the book, Charlie, a high school senior in rural Illinois, is coming to terms with childhood trauma, after his mother died when he was still in grade school, and his father spent years afterward trying to drink himself to death before finally getting sober.
One fateful day, Charlie discovers his mysterious neighbor, Mr. Bowditch, has fallen off a ladder and broken his leg. Charlie soon becomes his caretaker as he recovers, developing a close relationship with the grumpy old man and his beloved dog, Radar.
But this is a Stephen King novel, and there’s much more to Mr. Bowditch than meets the eye — though King certainly begins dropping hints very early on in the story. In his backyard there’s a shed, and in that shed there’s a tunnel. That tunnel leads to another world — a world in which beautiful princesses speak through horses, curses turn whole populations gray and deformed, and a giant rules the land through cruelty and force.
As with several of King’s teenage boy protagonists before him — Jake from the “Dark Tower” series, Jack from “The Talisman,” even Bill from “It” — Charlie is thrust into a dangerous adventure. How he fares depends on how he chooses to conduct himself. Will he do the right thing? Will he succumb to temptation and violence? Will our hero save the princess, and the realm?
Sure, there are a few brief passages that draw attention away from the otherwise mesmerizing plot, like Charlie’s seemingly preternatural intelligence and common sense, and bits of dialogue that I know I’ve never heard any Millennial teen utter. But those things are quickly forgotten as the scope of the story comes into focus.
I won’t share too many details about what happens once Charlie crosses from our world into another, but I will say that I was left deeply satisfied by the entire book from start to finish, gobbling up the story like the delicious stew Dora the shoe woman serves. It’s my favorite King book since 2011’s “11/22/63,” a fact I knew within the first 100 pages. And not just because I immediately fell in love with Radar, the brave, loyal and sensitive German Shepherd for whom Charlie risks his life. Any dog lover will likely empathize.
Stephen King said on the book jacket that he wrote “Fairy Tale” during the pandemic lockdown, when he asked himself “What could you write that would make you happy?” If writing this beautiful, exciting, touching fairy tale did the trick for him, then imagine what it will do for you as a reader.