Sunday, October 22, 2023

Stephen King's Fairy Tale (2022).

We all have our strengths and weaknesses.  This is one of those natural facts that life is willing to teach us as time goes on.  Stephen King, for instance, seems to be at the peak of his game whenever he's conjuring up tales of things that go bump in the night.  It's the method and mode in which he first made a name for himself, and the passage of time seems to have proven just how tried and true this remains as the Horror genre continues to be his best creative outlet.  This isn't the same as saying that the author hasn't tried to break out of his own mold and try other things.  Nor is it true to say that King has found no success outside of the strict confines of the Gothic genre.  One of his best known works, for instance, is a simple novella known as "The Body".  Despite its title, there's little to nothing of any of the writer's usual trademarks to be found within those pages.  Rather than a work of Horror, readers are treated to nothing less than a straightforward, small town drama detailing the coming of age of a pair of friend in the flagship town of Castle Rock, in Maine.  These days, the story is most often seen as atypical of King, and yet it has gone on to be one of his most popular works to date.  This was solidified by the later success of the novella's adaptation, as Rob Reiner's Stand By Me.

Nor is that the only time that King was able to successfully step out of his comfort zone.  Hearts in Atlantis, for instance, is an experimental, interconnected anthology novel tackling pretty much the same themes and ideas as Stand By Me, except this time the canvas has been widened to include a cast of multiple characters spanning an entire generational shift.  Much like with the earlier Reiner story, Hearts is one of those novels that will forever deserve more credit than it is ever libel to get for its efforts.  With that novel, King achieved a kind of unremarked tour-de-force, and it remains one of the best examples of the author not just writing outside of his generic comfort zone.  It's also one of the best go-to examples that you can point as a book-length demonstration of King's creative expression as a true, literary artist.  It's the kind of book that will always telegraph that here we're dealing with a type of craftsmen who deserves a place on the shelf alongside Henry James, William Faulkner, and John Updike.  The fact that it remains overlooked testifies to the way readers prefer to confine even their favorite artists into neat little pigeon holes, even when they prove they can be more than this.

While stories like Hearts in Atlantis seem destined to remain as unheralded masterpieces displaying the full range of the writer's talent outside the fields of Terror, there is still one other genre that Stephen King has tried his hand at during various points in the life of his career.  This time, however, the results have, for the most part, been of a pretty mixed variety.  King's career serves as a kind of testimony of one man's artistic talent.  And what it tells us is three things.  That he's a natural at the Gothic tale.  He's also underrated as a genuine artist in the non-supernatural slice-of-life story.  He might also be prone to one specific weakness.  Whenever King decides to turn his attention to one of his typical plot ideas, involving ordinary people caught up in extraordinary, horrific events, the writer's narrative voice can often approach a level of quality that might best be described as Tolkienesque.  This is just something King has proven himself capable of in a natural and unforced way.  The few times when this skill has failed him.  When that valuable narrative voice has faltered, is (in the most ironic sense possible) those handful of times when he's ever tried to deliberately write in the vein of the creator of Middle Earth.

In other words, give King a Horror story, or a straightforward drama to write, and odds are even that the final result will be pretty darn great to decent enough, at worst.  If he tries to take on the realm of straightforward Fantasy?  Not so much.  For whatever reason, that's the one genre that King never seems to have been able to crack.  This hasn't been for a lack of trying, either.  He's made at least three, maybe even as much as four attempts at writing a story in this particular field, depending on how you choose to look at it.  Those efforts of his that fit this criteria include The Talisman (a 1984 collaboration made with his friend and professional colleague, Peter Straub), The Eyes of the Dragon (one of the author's most straight-forward attempts at a creating a true Tolkien or Brothers Grimm styled fantastic world), and then there's The Dark Tower.  I'm not real sure if a book like The Stand fits into this criteria or not.  That one is most often described as a post-apocalyptic Horror novel, and it's a description I'm willing to let stand, even if it does contain a shared villain whose arc encompasses most of the other efforts mentioned above.  The point is each of these books mark all the times King has attempted to break into the proper Fantasy genre, and all of them are best seen as a series of trials as errors.

It seems as if trying to write in the Fantasy mode is the one undertaking that is good for just one, ironic thing.  It never fails to reveal the limits of King's strengths as a writer.  All the genre of Once Upon a Time can do is to mark out the dividing line where the writer's otherwise considerable talents first begin to ebb, and at last peter out in what amounts to several fits of wasted effort.  Apologies for how harsh that must sound.  Yet I'll swear it's the truth.  None of the novels described above, not even the Dark Tower series can be described in the last resort as good books.  Instead, all they are is displays of creative desire on the part of an artist who doesn't have the necessary skill set to conquer this particular imaginary terrain.  It's got to be one of the worst dilemmas for someone who is a clear cut fan of epic quests into other worlds.  It's like a situation once described with bitter eloquence by author Peter S. Beagle as being "A Bad Poet with Dreams".  In King's case, a more accurate description is that he's great poet with impressive vision, and somehow none of his talent allows him to make headway in that one particular creative field that remains just forever out of reach.  It remains one of the few, notable, continuous failures in an otherwise stellar career.  The irony goes back to what I said at the beginning.

For whatever reason, King is the kind of author whose literary talents seems to run in just two, inter-locking directions, the realistic American Pastoral, or else the Gothic Romantic.  He has it in him to deal with the building blocks of Fantasy.  However, they only work so long as he's writing a Horror story, and not the other way around.  It just seems to be the natural outline and creative expression of the artist's Imagination.  King can write like Tolkien so long as he never tries to be him.  Don't know if that makes any sense, yet I'll swear it's the truth.  That's why it was kind of puzzling to learn that one of his latest releases was going to bear the simple title of Fairy Tale.  I know was excited when the book was first announced.  A basic summary of the plot sounded intriguing.  It suggested to me that we might have the opportunity to get the best of both worlds; a Horror story written by Stephen King situated part of the way in a realm straight out of the Grimm Brothers.  What was there not to like?

The funny thing is how, even as I played the waiting game like everyone else, it never occurred to me for some reason (at least not much) to recall that King's track record with this kind of story just never amounted to all that much.  Whenever he gets in his mind to tackle that sort of material, he always winds up straining his skills on account of the well running dry.  His imagination just won't stretch that far into such environs, and the result (even with The Stand and the Tower mythos) amount to examples of what King himself often refers to as him "trying too hard", and each result is an example of literary overkill.  I must have been running on the adrenaline of pure expectation that whole time, though.  Because if any of these reservations ever did occur in my mind, they were so muted that I'm not even sure I heard them.  So instead, the big day arrived, and I was lucky enough to be gifted a copy from my own Dad.  I picked up Stephen King's Fairy Tale, and began to read.  Here, then, are the results.

The Story.

This is what happens.  It doesn't start "Once Upon a Time", though in a sense, it does.  Rather than the usual opener to a story such as this, we get the following piece of advice, from a familiar character that most of us can recall from our childhoods.  I remember her as a charming girl, elegant and graceful.  "Always let your conscience be your guide".  That's what she told me.  I can still see the first time she ever told me those words like it was yesterday.  Then the narration begins, and this is what the story's main character has to tell us.  "I'm sure I can tell this story.  I'm also sure no one will believe it.  That's fine with me.  Telling it will be enough.  My problem - and I'm sure many writers have it, not just newbies like me - is deciding where to start.  My first thought was with the shed, because that's where my adventures really began, but then I realized I would have to tell about Mr. Bowditch first, and how we became close.  Only that never would have happened except for the miracle that happened to my father.  A very ordinary miracle you could say, one that's happened to many thousands of men and women since 1935, but it seemed like a miracle to a kid.

"Only that isn't the right place, either, because I don't think my father would have need a miracle if it hadn't been for that goddamned bridge.  So that's where I need to start, with that goddamned Sycamore Street Bridge.  And now, thinking of those things, I see a clear thread leading up through the years to Mr. Bowditch and the padlocked shed behind his ramshackle old Victorian.  But a thread is easy to break.  So not a thread but a chain.  A strong one.  And I was the kid with the shackle clamped around his wrist (1-2)".  From there, the scenario we're introduced to could very well come from the lore of an old folktale.  It's the fairly standard enough setup.  You've a house with a family in it.  This consists of a Father, Mother, and most important of all, the Child.  We've already met these characters somewhere before.  It's just been so long that it's no longer possible to tell just where or when that was.  Nor does it matter all that much.  In a way, it's kind of nice to see these folks and their old, familiar setup once again.  The Child's name is Charlie Reade this time around, and he's no longer a simple farm boy.

Instead, he's taken on the role of a simple village peasant lad.  He's never spent his life within the confines of the Storybook Kingdom itself (in King's novel, the imaginary locale of Sentry's Rest, Illinois, somewhere just outside of Chicago's city limits plays the role of the protagonist's home town), but rather occupies a cozy enough little cottage situated well within the parameters of his own, small village.  Time has marched on, of course, and these days even the little peasant boy prefers to be called just a local neighborhood kid.  His father's name is George, and we never get to learn much about his mother, because she's the one who sets this whole quest in motion.  It never happens by choice, of course, it never does in a story like this.  All that happens is the same thing that always does in a folk legend such as King's.  One day the peasant boy's mother is on her way home in the rain, when she's struck and killed by a souped up carriage wagon known as a Ten Wheeler Big Rig on the bridge that spans a river in the middle of the township.  As is usual, the mother is removed from the stage into the wings, like always in this sort of narrative, leaving both father and son the task of taking it pretty hard.

As is further expected, Charlie's father starts taking to the bottle, leaving the little peasant boy to become the de facto man of the house.  Here's where a somewhat new deviation comes into the account.  Charlie is able to keep things running around the house, including looking after a grieving father who chooses to both hide from and nurse his grief.  However, the peasant boy still finds ways of venting his own anger by falling in with a bad crowd, and becoming something of a small time delinquent.  At one point, Charlies and a "friend" of his named Bertie Bird even went so far as to smear dog crap on the windshield of some poor guy's car, if you can believe it.  Not so sure I recall that happening anywhere in the Brother's Grimm, yet the narrative arc remains the same.  Things degenerate to the level where one night, in the midst of quiet desperation the peasant boy begs the Almighty for a for a miracle in exchange for a bargain.  If He'll help his dad sober up, Charlie promises to find some way of paying back his debt for this request, somehow and in some way.  It is always possible the that Personality, or Mind in Question was listening.  For George Reade begins a fast recovery of his sanity.

Charlie's dad manages to kick the drinking habit with a little help from both his son and a few of their friends from the village.  From there, things begin to pick up as the Father starts putting both his life and that of his son back together again.  In another day and age, it might have been whispered in the town square (in particular by all of the old wives) that George Reade has done a better job of it than Humpty Dumpty.  Of course, whenever the story takes a turn such as this, the little peasant boy is smart enough this time around to live up to his end of the bargain.  Once Charlie sees his prayers answered, he jumps into the role of both honor student and model citizen, doing his best in the hopes that his efforts are meeting his side of the deal.  Then on a clear autumn day, the peasant boy found himself making his way homeward when he heard a noise.  It was coming from behind the "Psycho House".

That was the name given by all the children of the village (and even some of the "adults", who were still smart enough never to use the moniker out loud, or at least never in public) to an old mansion situated atop one of the hills that overlooked the town.  It belonged to an elder gentleman by the name of Howard Bowditch.  The "Psycho House" was the sort of place, and Mr. Bowditch the type of owner that all the little kids steered clear off.  He was the closest thing Charlie's village had, in other words, to a genuine neighborhood ogre.  The only reason our hero made a bee line for the House at all that day was because he heard the sound of a dog barking, followed by the faintest cries for help.  When he reached the back of the great dwelling, the peasant boy found both a dog named Radar, and Mr. Bowditch himself, sprawled on his back in the grass and dirt behind his own home, with one leg caught between the rungs of an old step ladder.  Both the leg and some of the rungs on the ladder had broken.

Mr. Bowditch had taken a nasty tumble when trying to do some meager home repairs, and now he was lamed up.  For better or worse, Charlie saw an opportunity to keep his end of the bargain to Upstairs Management, and in time became both housekeeper and caretaker to Mr. Bowditch.  In the process, the peasant boy found himself falling in love with Radar.  Mr. Bowditch proved willing and able to live up to his title of village ogre, though even his ill-temper was able to soften enough to trust his life with the village peasant.  For a time, everything seemed normal, until first a number of odds sounds, and then a literal monstrosity emerged from the shed tucked away in Mr. Bowditch's back yard.  At last, the village ogre decides to level with the peasant boy, and tells Charlie all about the dark and tremendous secret that he's kept hidden and safe, right here in the heart of their own, unassuming town.  The tale that Mr. Bowditch tells is enough to send Charlie first into, and then ever down under the shed, past the hollows of the Earth, and into a new and perilous realm full of magic, wonders, and bone-chilling dangers.  It's an enchanted and haunted kingdom in need of a hero to rescue it.  It doesn't take long for Charlie to find himself on a quest in this world, and the little village peasant boy is soon in for more than he bargained.

Weaving a Magic Spell.

This entire book came about because of the unintended consequences of a simple question.  Not too long ago, Stephen King was trying his best to survive the recent spate of bad news that had been hitting the Country at the height of the COVID pandemic.  I don't doubt that the recent outbreak was when this question occurred to the author.  However, I can't help being convinced that it was probably never just the spread of the illness in and of itself, nor even its mortal cost, that prompted King's musings.  Instead, something just tells me it was the weight of an entire slough of recent history that had left him in one of those contemplative frames of mind.  The kind that can sometimes present the perfect mental ballpark for the Imagination to run wild and play around in.  According to official, pre-publication publicity materials for this novel, it all began when the writer asked himself a question: “What could you write that would make you happy?”  It's from here that King's own words help tell the rest of the narrative.

"As if my imagination had been waiting for the question to be asked, I saw a vast deserted city—deserted but alive. I saw the empty streets, the haunted buildings, a gargoyle head lying overturned in the street. I saw smashed statues (of what I didn’t know, but I eventually found out). I saw a huge, sprawling palace with glass towers so high their tips pierced the clouds. Those images released the story I wanted to tell (web)".  To put in another way, the author was most likely experiencing the same malaise that a lot of people around the entire world felt during those dangerous years, and was in need of some kind of pick-me-up, and so his Imagination obliged for him.  Nor is it all that surprising.  One of the main functions that the Imagination appears to serve is that of a natural, psychological guard rail.  I suppose a good way to say this is that the Imagination is at least one of nature's ways (or whatever Process may be said to exist behind the appearances we call Nature) of protecting the mental subject from harm, destruction, or disintegration.  It's just another part of Life's (whatever that word means) ways of perpetuating itself.  As Jeff Goldblum was want to observe, "Life finds a way".  This seems to have been true even during the pandemic, and the Imagination is one of the ways to in which to bring this about.

One of those results turned into the novel under discussion here today.  And it's pretty darn interesting, to say the least.  In providing its author with the needed boost of mental confidence, the nature of Fairy Tale is alluded to in its very title.  In many ways, it's appropriate to claim this is the kind of story many of us have heard of before, in some way.  Maybe we've seen it on TV or in a movie somewhere.  Or else some of us got real lucky had it read to us as children.  Or else it was just something we picked up out of a random tome or collection of tales in passing, and so became acquainted with one of the most familiar tropes in the history of storytelling.  At it's heart, King's novel can even be broken down into its component folklore elements.  One upon a time there was a simple peasant boy named Charlie who discovered a gateway to another world, hiding in plain sight, in the very midst of his humble village.  The secret world, and it's hidden passageway, were all well hid under the mansion of the local village ogre, who vouchsafed this secret to the peasant.  From there, young Charlie made his way into this secret world, accompanied by his faithful dog companion.  Together they discovered an enchanted kingdom, grand and fair.  Yet it suffered under a curse and was held in the grip of a wicked tyrant.  It soon became clear that the local peasant boy was all that stood in the way of life or death for the enchanted realm.

I'm trying to figure out how many times I've heard, read, or watched this particular setup.  I think the version I keep coming back to the most is Jack and the Beanstalk.  The basic outline seems to fit, especially if you see the giant as an evil dictator lording his power over others.  That's the kind of basic narrative outline King is working with here in this book.  The major difference is the one folktale that the story keeps riffing on throughout its page count is always Rumpelstiltskin.  It's pretty much the Ur-text undergirding the main narrative, and without going into spoilers, I can say for a fact that it proves pivotal to the story's ending.  What's interesting for me is that the more you dig into King's narrative, the more a careful examination of the bones of the story fossil can reveal some pretty rich thematic insights.  Most of them have to do with the mode and structure of the book.

To start with, it is and isn't that much of a departure from King's usual, overarching method of telling stories.  Most his narratives center around a single concept, or situation.  A group of ordinary people find themselves caught up in an often elemental struggle with forces of the fantastic and the supernatural.  All of this is most often played out in terms of the generic Gothic tale structure.  This then is the main framework that undergirds all of King's writings.  It is interesting to note in passing, however, a claim made by C.S. Lewis that the typical enchanted kingdom motif of the traditional fairy tale was once considered a realistic setting a long time ago.  "We do not always notice its method because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds.  But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories.  They were, indeed, more realistic and commonplace than (Oxford University, sic) is to me: for many German peasants had actually met cruel stepmothers, whereas I have never (7)".  It means that the passage of time can make the real seem fantastic.

Most of us, after all, are willing to acknowledge that a realm like Middle Earth is a fictional place.  Even it's creator said as much when he labeled it a "secondary world".  That said, there was a time when all the world was a kingdom of one sort or another, and we all lived in the forest, because no one could live anywhere else, unless you willing to take your chances in the desert, that was.  So in that sense, it is just possible to speak of a time when the settings of stories like Rapunzel, King Arthur, and Snow White could all have been considered (in a very relative sense) "up to date".  Also just like King's tales, the peasant protagonists of the Brother's Grimm were also just a bunch of ordinary working class stiffs living a normal pre-twentieth century life until the enchanted creatures (whether good or bad, fair or frightening) appeared on the stage.  Even here, however, the basic nature of the situation (however imaginary) remains the same, a normal person is confronted, or must confront, abnormal or extraordinary circumstances.  Once again, the basic premise of either a story like Little Red Riding Hood or a novel such as The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon remain the same, regardless of century.

I guess this means it's possible to say that a good way to describe a Stephen King book is that it's what happens when the traditional fairy tale mode gets updated for the contemporary modern age.  Even if this is the case, then what's further notable about a story like Fairy Tale is not that it subverts this traditional mode of narration.  In fact, it can't be said to do anything of the kind.  This is one of those texts that knows it relies on its literary folk forebears, and is happy to use them like always.  Instead, it's more that the arc of the Journey of Prince Charlie (as the character is eventually labeled over the course of the book) relies on a particular subset idea within the fairy tale format.  This is the trope that hinges on the exploration and discovery of hidden or secret worlds concealed within the confines of our own reality.  I'm not sure what the exact scholarly term is for this kind of narrative, so I'll just call it the "Hidden Realm" story.  This is the main trope at the heart of King's novel, and it's one that should still be familiar enough to most audiences reading this.  We've known it from Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and Looking Glass Kingdoms.  L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, or else in Lewis's Narnia series.

A careful look at King's own writings reveal that this is a type of fantasy trope he is more than familiar enough with.  He's even used it before, in fact, during the course of his Dark Tower saga.  He plays on the trope once again here, in the form of the locked shed behind the "Psycho House".  We're teased early on by hints that it's an important player, prop, or passage way in the drama through such narrative details as curious and odd sounds emanating within it on occasion.  King makes sure enough clues are layered into the set up that our curiosity about this old shed, and what's behind the locked door stays somewhere just within our range of sight in the background of the action, even when it isn't the main focus of a given scene.  Like any well used stage prop, King doles out just enough cryptic information around the shed and its contents to keep us in suspense for the moment we're all expecting to happen.  It's the instant when something comes crawling out from that shed into our world, and whose presence will immediately turn ordinary reality well on its head.  The big moment does indeed arrive, and when it does I'd have to say King is able to accomplish his goal here pretty well.  The initial impact may leave you thinking of all those bug-eyed 50s monster movies, yet that's a red herring.  The real surprise still awaits the next moment of expectation, when Charlie decides to see what's inside for himself.

This second moment of expectation is handled at a naturally faster pace compared to the more deliberate build-up of the opening chapters.  This makes sense because the story's first big reveal promises more secrets behind the locked door waiting to be uncovered.  So the reader is now anxious to get inside the shed and find out what's there as soon as possible.  After a bit of further necessary setup business, our patience and curiosity are rewarded.  King said something long ago in either an interview or an essay somewhere about how well C.S. Lewis was at writing that first major trip through the wardrobe.  It's the moment where Lucy is moving past the entrance and is wading in among the coat hung on racks all around her.  At first everything is normal until she begins to notice that the space inside the wardrobe seems bigger than on the outside, and the temperature seems to have dropped.  It's then that Lucy becomes aware of the feel and crackle of leaves and the crunch of snow under her feet.  It's a scene that apparently has stayed with King all this time.  A lot of the reason why he's held onto that moment in his imagination is down to Lewis's skill in conveying the sense of a felt transition between the primary world of everyday reality, and into the hidden realm behind the locked door.  It's the Oxford writer's skill in making his readers see and feel that sense of transition that has inspired King in his very similar attempt.

Of course, this being a King book, it makes sense that his approach to opening the locked door is going to have a more familiar, Gothic atmosphere to it.  For instance, in bringing us up to the secret in the shed, he writes the following: "I didn't like stepping away from the door, but I made myself do it.  The outside me did it, because it meant to have a (look, sic).  The inside me was basically gibbering with terror, amazement, and disbelief.  I moved toward the boards with the blocks on top of them...The boards and cinderblocks were covering a hole in the floor, about five feet across.  I first thought it was a well left over from the days before city water, but when I shown the light down between the boards, I saw short stone steps spiraling down the shaft.  There were scuttering sounds and a low chittering deep in the dark.  Half-glimpsed movement that froze me in place.  More bugs...but not dead.  They were retreating from my light, and suddenly I thought I knew what they were: cockroaches.  They were giant, economy-sized, but they were doing what cockroaches always did when you shone a light on them: running like hell.  Mr. Bowditch had covered the hole which led down to Christ knew where (or what), but either he'd done a bad job...or the bugs had managed to shunt...the boards aside (167)".

Now admitting that this is a lot cruder than Lucy entering the wardrobe for the first time, I kind of have to stop and ask what on Earth else did you expect when you picked up a book by the same guy who wrote the screenplay for freakin' Creepshow?  That was a film that ended with E.G. Marshall being terrorized to death by the exact same species of insect, and those were normal sized critters, in point of fact.  The entire hidden doorway, or passage sequence in and of itself, however, is one that has cropped up in countless Fantasy and Horror novels before, and it shows every possible sign of happening again somewhere down the line.  This may not be the first time King has used this trope.  Though this book does mark the first time he's used it in such a traditional fashion, even going so far as to pretty much acknowledge all the names that have trod this same terrain before him, Lewis included.  While there may be some who will try to claim that King's handling of this same transitional trope is crude, I would instead argue that it's nothing more or less than the author being true to his particular artistic expression.

It might not be to everyone's taste, yet it is a sign that the writer is doing no more than playing on the literary strengths that he does have.  It's a point that I'll have to stress again near the end.  For the moment, let's take a look at a few more samples of how King handles the moment of crossing through the wardrobe door.  "I turned on the battery lights, went to the boards and blocks covering the well, and shone my light through one of the six-inch cracks.  I saw nothing but the steps winding down into darkness.  Nothing moved.  There were no scuttering sounds.  This did not sooth me; I thought of a line from a dozen cheap horror movies, maybe a hundred: I don't like it.  It's too quiet.  Be sensible, quiet is good, I told myself, but looking in that stone pit, the idea didn't have much force.  I understood that if I hesitated for long I'd back out, making it twice as hard to get even this far again.  So I stuck the flashlight in my back pocket once more and lifted away the cement blocks.  I slide the boards aside.  Then I sat down on the lip of the well, my feet on the third step, telling myself there was plenty of room for my feet.  This wasn't precisely true.  I armed sweat from my forehead and told myself everything was going to be alright.  This I didn't precisely believe (189)".


"A hundred and eighty-five stone steps of varying heights, Mr. Bowditch said, and I counted them as I went down.  I moved very slowly, with my back planted against the curving stone wall, facing the drop.  The stones were rough and damp.  I kept the flashlight trained on my feet.  Varying heights.  I didn't want to stumble.  A stumble might be the end of me.  On number ninety, not quite halfway, I heard rustling beneath me.  I debated shining my light toward the sound and almost decided not to.  If I startled a colony of giant bats and they flew up all around me, I probably would fall.  That was good logic, but fear was stronger.  I leaned out a bit from the wall, shone my light along the descending curve of the steps, and saw something black crouching two dozen steps below.  When my light hit it, I had just enough time to see it was one of the jumbo cockroaches before it fled, scuttering into the black (189-90)".


"The corridor was there.  I stepped over the blocks and into it.  Mr. Bowditch had been right, it was so tall I didn't even think about ducking my head.  Now I could hear more rustling up ahead and guessed they were the roosting bats Mr. Bowditch had warned me about.  I don't like bats - they carry germs, sometimes rabies - but they don't give me the horrors as they did Mr. Bowditch.  Going toward the sound of them, I was more curious than anything.(190)".


"The dirt floor changed to stone.  To cobblestones, in fact, like in old movies on TCM about London in the nineteenth century.  Now the rustling was right over my head and I snapped off the light.  Pitch darkness made me fearful all over again, but I did not want to find myself in a cloud of bats.  For all I knew, they might be vampire bats.  Unlikely in Illinois...except I wasn't really in Illinois anymore, was I?...At last I saw light - a bright spark just as Mr. Bowditch had said.  I walked on and the spark turned into a circlet, bright enough to leave an afterimage on my eyes every time I blinked them shut.  I had forgotten all about the lightheadedness Mr. Bowditch had spoken of, but when it hit me, I knew exactly what he'd been talking about...I kept walking, but I felt like a helium balloon bobbing along above my own body, and if the string snapped I would just float away.  Then it passed, as Mr. Bowditch said it did for him.  He said there was a border, and that had been it.  I had left Sentry's Rest behind.  And Illinois.  And America.  I was in the Other (190-191)".  Some may argue that these scenes are a bit more drawn out than the way Lewis handles the world's first introduction to the Land Beyond the Wardrobe Door.  This criticism, however, ignores the demands of the differing kinds of story writing.

Specifically, the writer of Narnia was busy excavating a different type of book from the one King has uncovered.  I don't just mean that C.S. Lewis was writing more of a straight up Fantasy, while King's book still manages to belong in the realms of Horror.  Rather the difference lies also in the specific audience each author wrote for, and how this wound up dictating the specific nature of the text each was crafting.  The fact that Lewis wound up making a story for children might be seen as allowing the author a certain amount of leeway in terms of economy of expression.  This is true especially when it comes to those young readers who are still busy learning the basics of the English language.  A narrative with such a Spartan and to the point style of composition as The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is always going to be lauded not just for its hidden levels of erudition, but also for the graspable nature of its diction.  Lewis' style is Spartan in part because it is the type of literary expression that is always going to be best suited for a children's book.  King, on the other hand, is busy composing a full-fledged novel.  This places him under a different set of strictures from Lewis as an author.

For one thing, it's clear we're dealing with one of those stories that is generally meant for adults.  There's foul language, a lot of the Gothic imagery we've come to expect from King's other books in general, and while it's true there may be some young readers who will enjoy this text, it's clear enough that writing a book for kids was the last thing on the author's mind as he set about discovering his secondary world.  That means the kind of novel King has written is always going to be under a lesser deal of constraint when it comes to basic elements such as length of description, or build-up of scenery, setting, pacing, and narrative tension.  Adopting the more expansive canvas and conventions of an adult oriented novel gives the writer a greater sense of allowance when it comes to spearing time and attention to detail in terms of world building.  It's a crucial factor in a story such as this, and to his credit, King is able to pull it off to the full that the novel requires in order to do its job.  The interesting part is how it is still possible to make the case that Lewis did this better in his description of the inside of a closet turning into the outside of another world, however this can't be counted as a slight against King's effort, because he has given his own secondary world no more than what I needs in order to achieve it's goals.

Besides, there are other stories by C.S. Lewis out there.  Works that are definitely geared toward a more adult reader, and just like King, once the Narnian author is given a more expansive canvas to work with, he'll give the reader plenty of demonstration that he can paint with just as big and broad a brushstroke as either King, or Tolkien for that matter.  The real point, anyway, is the type of goal that King has accomplished with his skill in bringing the reader further up and in to the secondary world of Fairy Tale.  All of the author's main and familiar narrative skills are on full display in the construction of the Other Land at the heart of his narrative.  I'd have to argue that the writer has done a good enough job at bringing it to life off of the page as to qualify not just as a success.  It's also one of those achievements with a very particular, and familiar thematic meaning to all of it.

Conclusion: A Surprising Success, and a Gratifying Achievement. 

In many ways, Fairy Tale counts as something of a double triumph for it's author.  On it's most basic level, King has managed to tell a very well wrought and engaging story.  It's page count is generous, yet the pacing is tight, even in its quiet moments, and it keeps the reading turning them, eager to find out what happens next.  The story itself bears an equal division between setup and payoff that is able to achieve a neat and concise sense of balance.  King is eager to make sure the readers get to know just enough about the book's character so that we care about what happens when the main action kicks into high gear.  More than any of its basic achievements, however, is the one accomplishment of the story that makes it stand out, even in the midst of King's other considerable literary accomplishments.  This is a book that shows us the author at last finding a way to crack whatever code (or is it a magic spell?) that has kept him from being able to tackle the one type of story that has always evaded the reach of his talents until now.  I said way back at the start that King's strengths as a writer are all centered in the straightforward Horror genre, and that Fantasy is the one format that keeps eluding him.

In the strictest sense, this may very well still be the case, and what he's achieved here may prove to be just a one-off success.  Even if this turns out to be the case, I don't think it can ever quite take away from what the writer was able to achieve here.  If it's true that King's true métier remains in the haunted heartland fields of the American Gothic, then Fairy Tale is the one exception that proves the rule.  It's as if the author has found the right way into this kind of story, the one that was meant specifically for his kind of talents.  This time, not only does working within a specific subset of the Fantasy genre not prove a hindrance to King's skills as a literary composer, it also manages to enhance those same talents.  As a result, you wind up reading a story that is aiming for, and also contains that same sense of epic scope that King is able to give his readers even in the most insular of novels like The Shining, Salem's Lot, or even It.  Even if it's true this newest text can never quite reach the same monumental scale as the story of Derry, Maine (nor do I think any of the writer's other work will ever be able to achieve this either; the story of Pennywise remains King's true magnum opus, and as such, remains in a class by itself) it might be able to at least approach the respectable titan style proportions of Jerusalem's Lot.

For certain it's true that it belongs on the same shelf tier as that novel, or books like Bag of Bones.  It also goes without saying that Fairy Tale is a definite improvement over a novel like The Talisman.  With all due respect to that earlier tome (and with no slight meant to the efforts of the late, great Peter Straub) it remains clear that even the finished text showcases King to be struggling with the material.  It's like he's Samuel Taylor Coleridge catching a faint, glimpsing vision of Xanadu.  The author might be able see a basic outline of his secondary world, yet all it remains is a bare bones schematic.  He can't bring it to life off the page, nor can he scale the castle walls to catch a glimpse of what life is like inside the city.  This is basically the same process King has had to put up with each time he tries his hand at Fantasy.  What makes Fairy Tale stand out from all those other times is that now it seems like at last the author has found the magic key that opens whatever door he needed in order to make a story like this work.  To put it another way, it is just possible to claim that perhaps the author's Imagination went back to whatever original archetype, or story idea he had with Talisman or The Dark Tower.  This time, however, for whatever reason, the vision came in clear and Xanadu opened all its secrets to him.

As a result, we're given an authentic, full-fledged fantasy world for the first time ever by Stephen King.  He's not the kind of writer you ever expect to pull this off, and yet he found a way.  It makes sense, for the record, that the hidden world Charlie Reade discovers inside the backyard house shed is a composite realm made up of equal parts Mother Goose, Brother's Grimm, and H.P. Lovecraft.  This is something that anyone who has paged through either The Talisman or Dark Tower books has come to expect, and nor is that a complaint in this case.  King's one approach to Fantasy world building is highly allusive.  Places like Mid-World or the Territories tend to be what you get if you add the works of Tolkien, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, HPL, Clark Ashton Smith, and L. Frank Baum's Oz stories together.  For King, this results in secondary realms that are more like Borgesian living libraries come to life.  In that way, King's own efforts bear a surprising amount more in common with C.S. Lewis's Narnia than I think even I was expecting.  Lewis's efforts counts as a legitimate fantasy world.  Yet what it shares in common with King's practices is that both authors tend to conjure up imaginary kingdoms that contain characters, places, and situations that serve to act as callbacks to the literary works that inspired them.

I suppose a good way to term these secondary worlds is to describe them as follows.  What each artist has constructed amounts to a Kingdom of Allusion.  These are worlds that play on the idea of the protagonists stepping into the covers of a book that's come to life.  This explains how characters from the Dark Tower series can have a confrontation with the Tick-Tock man of Oz in the Emerald Palace.  Or how the children who enter Narnia wind up meeting the cast of Spenser's Faerie Queene.  Or how Lewis Carroll's Alice keeps encountering highly satirical versions of figures drawn straight from British myth and history in Wonderland.  Each of these authors has composed worlds that are made up entirely of the books they've read, and that have inspired them as children now turned into adult artists in their own right.  It's a perfectly legitimate form of storytelling.  However, until now, King has never managed a successful attempt at it.  Like I say, it's an archetype that King has been struggling with since he was a college student.  This book marks the first time he was able to either figure a way into the archetype, or else the writer's Imagination just took pity on him, and appeared in a form that would be able to play on all of his actual literary strengths.  Either way, the result comes to the same gratifying surprise.

It allows the reader to enjoy a world where the little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, or a humble Goose Girl reside right alongside Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid.  It's also a place that allows King to find his own strengths in such a realm for the first time.  If this story sounds like a departure for the author of Carrie, then King's talent is more than willing to remind us just who we're dealing with here.  This is on display best when Charlie has to make his way through the empty yet haunted streets of an abandoned kingdom.  It's one of several standout sequences in the novel, and it let's us know that the author has neither lost his touch, nor forgotten what kind of writer he truly is.  The kingdom itself is like a fairy tale storybook gone wrong.  The streets, shops, and buildings all look normal until their shapes and sizes begin to warp and twist until you'd swear you just caught the barest glimpse of a ghoulish or aquatic looking face peering out at you from one of the upper windows.  Either that or else it looks as if the houses and buildings, even the palace walls are themselves turning into faces, or are ready to sprout the kind of gnarled and twisted hands that look like they want to reach out and grab you.  To say nothing of a troop of ghouls emerging from their graves, or skeletons on motor-cycles.

All of which is to say that, yes, or course, this counts very much as what we think in terms of a Stephen King novel.  Right down to a final confrontation with Rumpelstiltskin in the form of a Lovecraftian Eldritch Abomination.  The first important point, however, to all of this is that after what seems a lifetime, King has found a way to make this all work for him.  The entire novel is a class act, and might have to go down as one of the handful of candidates for the best efforts of King's latter stage career.  It's a list whose entries include works such as 11/22/63, Revival, The Outsider, and Lisey's Story.  What marks a book like Fairy Tale out from all of the others is the fact that after years of struggle, the author has finally achieved a sort of literary conquest.  Success in the Fantasy genre (even within the limited form of the Dark Gothic subset) has eluded him for practically all of his life.  So for King to have been able to plant a flag for himself in this territory amounts to no mean or small victory.  I suppose a good way to think of it is the literary equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award.  However, this is just the first feather in the artist's cap.  The second is just as important.

In succeeding for the first time in writing a genuine Fantasy story in a Gothic key, King has also managed an unexpected, yet welcome form of a particular literary accomplishment.  I've said before and elsewhere that King's writing contains a Tolkienesque quality, both in terms of style as well as the content of his narratives.  He's one of the few writers I know who can create an imaginary New England small town, and give that single setting all the depth and breadth of both Hobbiton and Mordor rolled into one.  Fairy Tale, however, marks the first and so far most successful time King has been able to take those qualities and showcase them in a narrative format that is close to their original epic, fairy story grandeur.  In doing so, the writer succeeds at achieving a very particular kind of poetic effect.  For the first time, King shows himself capable of tapping into the specific literary "charm" or artistic quality that goes with story fables such as this.  It's a case of the author as an individual talent writing within a distinctive literary tradition.  In this case, it's a subgenre whose nature and contours were laid out long ago by critic and scholar Roger Lancelyn Green, in The Book of Other Worlds.

If we follow the logic of Green's thinking, then it is possible to claim that King's secondary world quest is able to touch on a very ancient response of the human imagination.  "There is a dream", Green writes, "a waking dream or a sleeping dream - which we have all had at one time or another; a dream of finding a way out of this everyday world into some new, strange country that is charted on no map and listed in no gazetteer; a new world of the imagination that has become real...Like Robert Louis Stevenson we all have the power of looking over the wall, of finding the right pass-word, the "Open Sesame"..."that oft-times Charm'd magic casements, opening on...perilous seas, in...lands forlorn -" as Keats puts it puts it so perfectly.

"From the earliest times the dream of entering another world has been common to all races of mankind.  At its most serious it is the longing to find the way back to Paradise Lost...Even stories of adventuring into the world of the dead and returning into this world while still alive have seemed possible; in ancient Greek legends Orpheus made his way down into the Land of the Dead and returned to the upper world still a living man - and on other occasions Heracles did the same, and also Psyche, and even Theseus in some stories.  And Virgil told how Aeneas found his way there and back also.  But usually any such journey was made by a god or a messenger of the gods, in mythologies as various as those of Babylon, the Norsemen and ancient Mexico (ix)".  "Usually the modern, invented, (Other World, sic) is of...adventure.  Just as Jack climbed up the Beanstalk and so came to a new world, Alice went down the Rabbit Hole to Wonderland, or through the Looking-Glass to the land beyond it.  Just as Prince Ahmed went through the door in the rock and found himself (in the realm of The Thousand and One Nights, sic), so the Pevensie children went through the back of the magic wardrobe into the other world of Narnia (xi)".  These are the ancestors of King's latest literary Fantasy.

In many ways, Charlie is the great grandson of these imaginary travelers.  Much like Orpheus or Alice, King's protagonist is able to find a way out of this world and into another.  At one point, Charlie even compares himself directly to Jack and the Beanstalk.  It's also that imaginative sense of possibility and romance tied to the idea of exploring other wheres and whens that helps drive the engine of King's book, and which the author is able to tap into to draw the reader in.  These component narrative elements help to heighten the book's Tolkienesque atmosphere in another way.  They do this simply by helping the story checkmark all the boxes that the creator of Middle Earth himself believed to be the key notes of a good yarn.  In fact, another scholar, Tom Shippey, explains it best in a summary of Tolkien's sentiments on the matter.  "Most good fairy-stories are about "the (adventures) of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches (xi-xii)".  Perhaps that's the best description that can be given to one of King's most recent releases.  It's a Perilous Realm Tale; one with all the usual excitement and adventures, and marvelous encounters you might expect from just such a book as this.

The only major addition King's individual talent has offered this tradition is to recast it all in the literary format he's always been most comfortable in.  The result is one of the few successful examples of the American Gothic Dark Fantasy out there on the book shelves.  The author has entered the realm of both Tolkien and Mother Goose, and found the path that leads to the darker avenues and dungeon cellars that dot this sort of imaginary landscape.  As a Horror writer, it just makes sense that King would bring his own specialized and familiar spin to the Enchanted Kingdom of Long Ago.  This is best on display near the end, when the faint Lovecraftian note that has been sounded like a faint yet audible heartbeat in the background is brought on-stage for one final performance.  The interesting thing about these final moments is that while King may draw on elements of Lovecraft for his finale, the narrative itself never falls into, or gives way toward that Providence author's note of Cosmic Horror.  For whatever reason, this is a tale that can never end in nihilism.  It all got started with the author wondering what could make him happy, and the Imagination has supplied the answer in story form.

This has resulted in a modern day other world epic that owes just as much to Tolkien as it does Lovecraft or George A. Romero.  It's overall nature is revealed to have less to do with the Plains of Leng, and instead reveals a story that has more in common with the mystical Gothic country explored by the likes of Arthur Machen.  Perhaps that's even fitting as even HPL admitted Machen was his most prominent influence, and was more than willing to speak of the Welsh author's writings as being of a higher quality than his.  Machen's work reveals a secondary world much like King's Enchanted Kingdom.  There are dark places, yet ultimately even this is subsumed into the same level of wonder that is most often associated with all those ancient myths that Roger Green talked about.  Like the writings of Machen, King's story of Charlie's Adventures in the Underland Kingdom ends on a note of enchantment, even while it's busy giving us the familiar chills that we like.  It's for all of these reasons that I'm able to say that Fairy Tale is definitely a book worth picking up and diving into.  It's not only a rollicking good Gothic Adventure yarn, it's also one of the rarest achievements Stephen King has ever made.  I think what he's written here will have to go down as one of his greatest successes, and a future classic. 

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