I started reading Stephen King’s newest book with… trepidation. I’m a fan of King, but not an ultra fan; at a rough estimate, I’ve probably read a quarter of his books. I recognize a Stephen King story when I’m in one—he has his own style, inclinations, and mythos—and I do enjoy most of his work.
But now he wants to come into what I like to think of as MY neck of the woods (ahem, pun intended) and play with MY tropes?! I don’t know, Mr. King, how will you pull this off? As something of a folklorist, I have spent years of my life deep diving into fairy tales and folklore from around the world, and there are certain aspects and elements of folkloric stories that I’m going to need to see if your latest book is truly going to live up to its title: Fairy Tale.
First of all, let me offer some quick, broad definitions, which will be useful to the discussion below. (1) A fairy tale, shall we say, is a story featuring fantastical creatures, where improbable events (usually) lead to a happy ending. Of course we can immediately come up with dozens of exceptions, even when we don’t delve into modern reinterpretations, but let’s just call that our baseline definition. (2) Folklore, then, is a larger shared tradition encompassing fairy tales and all their variants: there are key elements to any particular tale, but essentially we are looking at stories that have been told over and over again, templates altered to fit or reflect current realities, beliefs, or cultural climates. And of course we have (3) mythology, or mythos, the stories and concepts (often featuring fantastic or supernatural elements) that we use to explain why things are the way they are. I offer all three of these definitions lightly and not definitively, but as a starting place for discussion.
So let’s dive into a spoiler-laden analysis and see how we feel about this novel—is it epic fantasy? Is it horror? Is it a fairy tale at all? Can it be all three at once and, if so, how successfully does it navigate the things that make it what it is?
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS AHEAD!
King’s Fairy Tale is a typical story that follows the pattern of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. The hero must set out from home, travel to the underworld, gain new wisdom, and return home to share that wisdom with his people. (That is the ultra-simplified version, of course, but it certainly applies to King’s newest book.) Charlie is a young man, a high school football hero, trying to be a good kid because he believes that he owes a higher power a return on investment after his father gives up alcohol. His entanglement with local recluse Mr. Bowditch is a direct result of this drive to do good; after their initial encounter, he could have left the old man to his own devices, but the weight of responsibility he feels is transferred from the world at large to Mr. Bowditch specifically.
His choices are further influenced by the fact that Charlie falls hard and fast for Bowditch’s German Shepherd, Radar. Through a long opening sequence we get a chance to fall for Radar ourselves, as well as getting to know Charlie and his father and learning more about Mr. Bowditch and his mysterious circumstances, leading up to the big reveal: Bowditch’s property sits on (and guards) a well to another world, a steep spiral staircase leading to an entirely different existence, with different natural rules and society.
When Bowditch dies, he sends Charlie on a quest to restore the aging Radar to her youthful strength via a magical sundial that turns back the clock for whoever rides it. Charlie ventures forth only to find a land fallen into corruption and despair, a beautiful princess lost to a terrible curse, and an evil overlord determined to ride the world to ruin. (And, should he be successful, to branch out into Charlie’s world too.) Charlie’s presence in this mix causes a strange transformation: he finds himself turning into the promised prince (complete with blond hair and blue eyes) who can save the land from terrible darkness. Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, Charlie fights his way through to victory, stops the ascension of an evil and deadly power, and provides the princess the help she needs in the final moments. (We’ll come back to this.) Then Charlie makes his way back home with his dog, returns to his father and his life, older and wiser than when he left. He becomes a professor of folklore and mythology, and sits down to write a true account of his adventures…
So the title of the book could easily have been Hero’s Quest: it hits all the right notes for just that kind of satisfying mythological narrative.
But is it a fairy tale?
There’s a lot of slipperiness between those categories or “genres”: fairy tale, folklore, mythology. One thing that we can say is that these are stories that we tell over and over and over. There’s a reason that the hero’s quest resonates with us: it helps us make sense of our lives, even when we don’t understand why. So we revisit them again and again and again, reworking them into something that makes sense to us now. And Fairy Tale borrows freely from all kinds of mythology: in addition to the dozens of fairy tale references dropped in the text, there’s a powerful nod to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Lovecraftian mythos oozes through the pages. King doesn’t shy away from his own personal mythos, either; Cujo gets a mention by page 12, and readers of the Dark Tower series will recognize the quote that Charlie’s dad had read “in some book” when Charlie wishes someone “Long days and pleasant nights.”
Not for the first time, King heavily references The Wizard of Oz, as well, which is certainly considered a fairy tale if not generally thought of in terms of folklore or mythology. Charlie is our Dorothy, of course, and has his wonderful dog, too. Once he gets to the Emerald City, the specific trials diverge quite a lot from Dorothy’s (well, depending on how many layers you peel away, in which case, see Campbell’s theories).
Pulling these other mythologies into this story feels right, in the way that stories about stories often do. Our tales are interconnected, and so should our fiction be.
At another level, King draws certain familiar fairy tale tropes throughout his story, some more successfully than others. The princess hiding as a goose girl with her horse Falada was a nice touch from a somewhat lesser known (read: never adapted by Disney) fairy tale. The idea that beauty is equated with goodness and righteousness, and ugliness belongs to the wicked, was more troubling, and the story doesn’t quite manage to invert that trope in a meaningful way. Particularly Charlie’s physical transformation into the promised prince seemed strange and a bit dated. The narrative keeps declaring that this isn’t that kind of fairy tale, and he’s not that kind of prince, but the magical transformation happens anyway…
Charlie’s thoughts throughout the narrative, drawing parallels to the folklore that he knows, were sometimes spot-on but often just aggravating. Like a young professor who wants to draw his students’ attention to every possible reference (which, to be fair, is the perspective the story is told from), this narrative tic becomes aggravating by the latter half of the book: why does a “big pot” remind you of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” Charlie? There is no big pot in that story, there is a very important oven. Are you sure you need to explicitly stress that porridge is featured in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” Charlie, or might you perhaps let the reader make the association herself?
In spite of an occasional twitch at the more heavy-handed call-outs, there were many folkloric elements woven into the story that I did truly appreciate. For example, many words are dedicated to the importance of shoes, and although I did want them to be somewhat more plot-relevant than they ended up being, it was a nice detail. Charlie’s commentary about all fairy tales being darker than their Disney version was a satisfying acknowledgement. At one point, Charlie receives aid from a creature he has previously helped, in a beat that felt true to so many classic tales—I don’t know any promised princes who can succeed without that little moment in their stories! And on a more nuanced level, Charlie uses careful wording when he talks to other people, which he attributes to his father’s career as an insurance adjuster but which we know is always important when dealing with fairy folk.
Overall, there were three things (appropriately enough) made this a standout read to me, in terms of folkloric tropes and content:
First, I appreciated the novel’s use of the rule of three (which of course applies not only to fairy tales but to a great deal of communication, setting of expectations, comedy, and writing in general). Encounters come in iterations of three. Challenges come in threes. Charlie has three viscerally awful encounters with characters who call to mind Rumpelstiltskin. Three times Charlie fights not only a cunning and cruel protagonist, but also his own darkness, which he has to learn to draw upon to survive—but as a true prince, his anger must be righteous or he will fail in his quest.
Secondly, the importance of true names is a key concept not only in fairy tales, but also in a great deal of fantasy literature. Our most famous folkloric example is, as mentioned above, Rumpelstiltskin, and it is this story, which has been on Charlie’s mind throughout his adventures, that give him the final clue he needs to defeat Gogmagog (which is a great and terrible name, for sure, with a long and illustrious history in various myths and legends).
Thirdly is the fact that, overall, this isn’t a story about fighting a bad guy, or about magical names, or even about shoes. This is a fairy tale about love conquering evil. Charlie comes to this revelation by reflecting on the tale of Rapunzel, when he notes (in what is probably my favorite fairy tale-related moment in the entire book) that “Rapunzel” is a story about “terrible cruelty reversed by love.” Throughout the Fairy Tale in which he finds himself, Charlie has to draw back from the kind of hatred that leads to despair and cruelty, choosing each time a path of love, respect, safety, and trust extended to those around him. The only times he’s unable to do this are when the foe he’s facing is truly reprehensible, and whether or not the first two enemies could have been rehabilitated with love, the last villain cannot be.
Which leads me to our princess, Leah, cursed to live without a mouth, hiding as a goose girl. It’s an interesting choice, and it takes away the obvious “just kiss her” solution. Leah, Charlie thinks, is blinded by love for her brother, and perhaps that is true, but it is also her salvation: she cuts her own mouth open in order to cry out her brother’s name, and in doing so regains her voice and her power. Although she is forced to recognize that her brother has been truly lost to the corrupting evil of the power he’s awakened, it is this final burst of familial love that gives her the power to break her own curse.
The best fairy tales offer the promise that love does make a difference, even in the darkest of times. Whether it’s an old man connecting with a high school student over love of an good dog, or an alcoholic father working to stay sober for his son, or a princess coming out of hiding to save her people, Stephen King’s Fairy Tale does give us this powerful motif in abundance: Be kind and brave, adventurer, there is healing and love to be found in this strange world.
Rachel Ayers lives in Alaska, where she writes cabaret shows, daydreams, and looks at mountains a lot. She has a degree in Library and Information Science which comes in handy at odd hours, and she shares speculative poetry and flash fiction (and cat pictures) at patreon.com/richlayers.