Stephen King doesn’t start his new novel with “Once upon a time,” but he might as well have. Anyone who has read the Brothers Grimm, seen a Disney Princess movie or sat around a camp fire trading exploits, knows the power of those four little words.

In his new novel, “Fairy Tale,” King demonstrates how myth, folklore and fantasy show the truth behind what we call fiction, in an old-fashioned tale of action and adventure.

Charlie Reade is what you would call “a good kid.” At 17 years old, he’s a decent student, a star athlete and the protector of a widowed father drowning his sorrows in booze after Charlie’s mother is killed in a mysterious car accident.

When he hears his neighbor’s elderly German shepherd barking frantically from his backyard, Charlie takes the time to investigate and winds up saving the old man’s life. That act of kindness has far-reaching repercussions. Charlie takes an interest in Mr. Bowditch’s reclusive life, especially in his female canine companion, Radar. The dog doesn’t have much time left among the living, and neither does Mr. Bowditch.

Charlie begins spending most of his free time at the Bowditch place, which holds its fair share of secrets, particularly the decrepit, padlocked shed that no one seems to use or want to talk about. When Mr. Bowditch dies, he leaves behind instructions for Charlie to seal the stairwell that leads from our world to a place called Empis. According to legend, a magical sundial holds hope that time may reverse and make the dog young again.

If this all sounds familiar, well, that’s the point. Anyone aware of Joseph Campbell or “The Seven Samurai” or “Star Wars: A New Hope” can map the narrative beats well ahead of time. In the right hands, that doesn’t deprive them of any of their juice.

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The book is dedicated to (REH) Robert E. Howard, (ERB) Edgar Rice Burroughs and (HPL) Howard Phillips Lovecraft, familiar to fans of Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan of the Apes and the Old One known as Cthulhu.

It’s a “boy book,” light on the swearing, downright shy when it comes to sex, its sensibilities not much different from the kinds of pulpy stories enjoyed by young, male, early mid-century readers. There are few women among the supporting cast: a nosy neighbor, some helpful medical professionals, a princess who needs saving, and a giant to be killed.

At one point, King directly references the two young heroes of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” In noting the coming-of-age aspects of the novel, King quotes Bradbury: “I was pretty sure Will and Jim would survive their adventures, but I guessed they would never be so innocent again. Kids shouldn’t have to face terrible things. I knew that from experience.”

Empis is in an advanced state of ruin, ruled by cannibalistic giants more frightening than anything found in most versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Charlie is captured and forced to play gladiatorial games against his fellow soldiers. The scenes set in the prison are powerful, and often disgusting, as Charlie tries to survive while maintaining his human dignity.

King takes 200 pages to set up everything that happens before Charlie even enters Empis. Some critics might find that excessive, but King uses the leisurely setup to justify Charlie’ desperation to heal his beloved dog. The narrative takes its time to make the case that he would gamble everything for a few more years with Radar.

Although Charlie seems to be morphing into a traditional blond-haired Prince Charming, his experiences teach him important lessons about good and evil. Life isn’t as easy as it first appears, and the boy gains a inkling into his own darker nature as he reflects on the year after his mother was killed, when he played “pranks” on his unwitting neighbors.

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King has said on various occasions that “Fairy Tale” was written while in the depths of the pandemic and the Trump presidency, when he needed to write a book he himself would enjoy.

The experiment is a success. “Fairy Tale” arrives just in the nick of time for those of us ready for some old-fashioned escapism.

More than anything else, “Fairy Tale” reminded this reader of King’s great friend and collaborator, Peter Straub, who died on Sept. 6. Together, they worked on two novels about boys able to travel to magical realms, “The Talisman” and “Black House,” books in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, thanks to the unique genius of both writers.

Straub is gone, but King remains, about to turn 75, something for which all readers of popular literature can be grateful.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: mlberry


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