Charlie Reade doesn’t think he’s a hero.
Charlie is a 17-year-old kid living in a small Illinois town with his widowed dad. He’s a talented high school athlete, keeps his grades up, stays out of trouble, but doesn’t see himself as remarkable.
One day he rides his bike past the town’s obligatory spooky old house, one the kids call the “Psycho” house, allegedly occupied by a mean old man and his terrifyingly vicious German shepherd.
But what Charlie hears that day are the yelps of a desperate dog and the moans of a human in distress. On the back porch of the “Psycho” house he finds a frail old man who has fallen off a ladder and gruesomely fractured his leg. And there’s a German shepherd, all right, but in dog years she may be older than her master.
Charlie doesn’t know it yet, but that discovery will be the first step on his hero’s journey into another world.
Stephen King says that he started writing his new novel, “Fairy Tale,” during the early days of the pandemic lockdown. “What could you write that would make you happy?” he asked himself, and the answer was a vision of “a vast deserted city — deserted but alive. I saw the empty streets, the haunted buildings, a gargoyle head lying overturned in the street. ... Those images released the story I wanted to tell.”
OK, so King’s happy place might not be the same as yours. But the resulting story is an enthralling, adventurous read that will, like any genuine fairy tale, scare you half to death and lift up your heart.
Charlie calls for help for the injured man, Adrian Bowditch, but he doesn’t stop there. Charlie’s dad is a recovering alcoholic, and the caretaker role comes naturally to the boy. He moves into Adrian’s house to help him while his leg heals, and in the process cracks the old man’s emotional shell and becomes his friend.
That takes a while, but Charlie immediately falls in love with that German shepherd, whose name is Radar. King paints her with a dog lover’s affection — she’s loving, funny, loyal and uncomplaining about the indignities of old age. He also paints that aging process with painful accuracy; anyone who has loved and lost a pet will know the heartbreak Charlie is in for.
But first he’s in for some surprises, not the least of which is the bucket full of solid-gold pellets in Adrian’s wall safe. Their source is an even bigger surprise. In Adrian’s backyard, in a locked shed, is a portal to another world.
Adrian, it turns out, is much older than he looks, thanks to his visits to the land at the other end of the portal. Charlie learns that among its wonders is a sundial that can, if turned backward, restore the youth of any creature that stands upon it. After Adrian dies and Charlie becomes Radar’s master, he decides to take the journey himself, hoping to lengthen the dog’s life.
He makes a first foray without Radar, emerging into a field of red poppies, with the green towers of a city visible in the distance. But there are no dancing Munchkins to greet him, no yellow brick road. This is a land under a curse.
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The first person he meets is a warmly hospitable woman named Dora. Charlie is taken aback by her appearance, telling us that “her skin was slate gray and her face was cruelly deformed. It was as if her features had been drawn in charcoal and some bad-tempered deity had rubbed its hand across them, smearing and blurring them almost out of existence.”
The graying, as it’s called, has afflicted almost everyone in the land of Empis since the downfall of its ruling family and the reign of the mysterious but much feared entity called the Flight Killer. But Dora knew Adrian and Radar well; they visited more than once, she tells Charlie, and she’s sure the sundial can help the dog — if they can only survive the perilous journey into the almost abandoned city to find it.
So Charlie and Radar return, dodging wolves and many other dangers to get to the city. It’s in shambles, except for the palace and the sports arena, where the Flight Killer and his retinue entertain themselves watching a blood sport called the Fair One — a sport with which Charlie will become much too familiar.
And Charlie will, of course, fall in love with a princess, whose beauty is marred by a scar where her mouth used to be and whose heart is scarred by a terrible secret.
“Fairy Tale” is a splendid work of world-building, rich with detail and crafted to be similar enough to our own world that the strange elements feel truly strange.
That world-building is a knowing performance, with winks not only from the author but from Charlie, who remarks wryly on its countless references to other stories. When he meets the beautiful princess Leah, he tells us, he hears her name as “Leia, as in Star Wars. It seemed reasonable enough after everything else that had happened. I’d already met a version of Rumpelstiltskin, and an old woman who lived not in a shoe but below the sign of one; I myself was a version of Jack the Beanstalk Boy, and isn’t Star Wars just another fairy tale, albeit one with excellent special effects?”
King reminds us that before they were Disneyfied, the traditional fairy tales were often brutal and tragic, cautionary tales that helped people cope with a world full of woe.
But, as Charlie learns, heroism can grow out of peril, and you’ll need a very good dog. And if you ever meet a really big red cricket, treat it kindly.
By Stephen King
Scribner Books, 599 pages, $32.50