Stephen King's Latest Twists FAIRY TALE Tropes To Excellent Effect

The Master of Horror's un-put-downable new novel finds him back in the fantasy genre.

By Scott Wampler · @ScottWamplerRIP · September 2, 2022, 10:22 AM EDT

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It goes without saying that Stephen King is predominantly known for his work in the horror genre. That’s the man’s bread and butter, the stuff that launched his career into the stratosphere. It is, if I may be so bold, what he’s best at. But this is not to say that King refrains from dipping his toe into other genres, or that he’s not as successful at it when he does: his recent run of crime novels (the Finders Keepers series, last year’s Billy Summers) and his occasional detour into science fiction (the iconic The Jaunt, the undervalued From a Buick 8) frequently stand toe-to-toe with some of his best horror efforts, and next week he’s unleashing a giant new fantasy novel called Fairy Tale which proves that statement beyond any reasonable doubt.

King is, of course, no stranger to the fantasy genre. His Eyes of the Dragon remains one of the best entry points into reading the Master of Horror at an early age (it was, technically-speaking, the first King novel I ever read), and the epic The Talisman (co-written with Peter Straub and apparently en route to becoming a Netflix series executive produced by the Duffer Bros. and no less than Steven goddamn Spielberg) rank among his best novels. The world-building going on in these books – as well as in his masterful Dark Tower series – is invariably strong, threaded with colorful characters, sinister villains, and all the adventurous derring-do of any fantasy classic you might name. What can I say? The man simply knows his shit.


Indeed, King knocks it out of the park every time he steps up to the fantasy plate, and this one is no exception. Fairy Tale will scratch every King fan's fantasy itch across most of its 600+ pages, telling a largely straightforward tale (hero must get from A to Z while dodging foes and fulfilling what may be his destiny) that's positively overflowing with imagination: classic fairy tale imagery is turned on its head in a number of very Stephen King ways, hair-raising peril lurks around every corner, and the set pieces contained herein are as plentiful as they are memorable. It also leaves us with so many dangling questions about the history and functionality of Empis, the magical world where Fairy Tale takes place, that you’ll wish there was a sequel to dive into immediately upon finishing this chapter.


So, what's it about? I'm glad you asked...


Our protagonist is 17-year-old Charlie Reade, a gifted high school athlete and a generally good guy (it must be said, however, that he's been up to some not-so-nice pranks with a friend of his recently, and these hijinks subtly indicate that Charlie could very well tip over to the Dark Side if he's not careful) with a penchant for reading, helping out others, and keeping his alcoholic father off the sauce. Dad's a drinker because Charlie's mother died in a freak accident a few years prior, but thankfully he's staying on the straight and narrow. For now.


One day, Charlie helps out an elderly neighbor (and, yes, of course he lives in the neighborhood's allegedly haunted house) after the man falls off a ladder. This is Howard Bowditch, and while his house isn't haunted, the initially-grumpy ol' cuss is definitely hiding a secret: behind his house is a locked shack, and in that shack is a spiral staircase which leads down into a completely different world. That'd be the aforementioned Empis, which is populated by ... oh, let's call them versions of some classic fairy tale characters, along with a number of new people, creatures, and places we've never encountered before. Eventually, Charlie discovers Bowditch's secret staircase, and for reasons that I'll leave for you to discover, finds himself duty-bound to descend its many, many steps to take on a dangerous quest in a strange new world.


Does it sound like a YA novel? It's close! But every time King threatens to drift completely into such territory, he jerks the leash to remind us that we are still very much reading a Stephen King novel. Take his approach to incorporating classic fairy tale characters. In a representative moment, one of them (who may or may not be a certain Disney princess) shows up long dead and rotting in a scum-covered fountain, having been eviscerated by a giant's spear. Consider that a sizable section of the novel takes place in and around a disgusting dungeon where prisoners are alternately tortured or forced to brutally kill one another for the entertainment of a grotesque madman, and that King never skimps on the gory details. In other words, the YA feel is definitely there (this'd be the perfect King title to introduce a young reader to after they've made it through Eyes of the Dragon), but don't let that description discourage you if you aren't traditionally a fan of the genre.


(As the host of a podcast about Stephen King adaptations, I will also point out the following: Fairy Tale is practically begging to be adapted into a series; at some points, it seems as though that's precisely what King has in mind. There are pronounced movements in the book [Charlie's life before descending the staircase, his initial exploration of Empis, his time spent traversing a haunted city and his attempts to escape it, everything that happens after that], each of which could serve for several episodes' worth of material, and I can imagine this story would really sing if the right cast and creative team were to take on the job. I'm not a betting man but, if I were, I'd put down a fair amount of money that someone's already snapped up the rights to do it. You'd almost be dumb not to.)

There's so much else happening in Fairy Tale that I'd like to tell you about, but getting any more specific would mean getting into spoilers, and the steady drip of recognition and surprise that accompanies so many of its best moments really shouldn't be spelled out in a review. If you're looking for an easy comparison, King's latest is most akin to The Talisman (a comparison I do not make lightly), with little moments that, for King die-hards, will absolutely call to mind the palace intrigue of Eyes of the Dragon and the volatile unpredictability of the Dark Tower series. Incredibly, I actually found myself wishing that it'd been even longer, with further detours along Charlie's journey and even more Bizarro World fairy tale characters for him to stumble upon. I'm thrilled with what we got, however, and besides - who knows? Maybe King's saving some of that extra stuff for a sequel. Fingers crossed.