This novel’s sales pitch shines from it like a Vegas billboard: “a fairy tale…but dark and edgy. Bet you’ve never heard that idea!”

If your reaction is “I have heard that idea. Many times. Everyone has heard that idea” then shame on you. Stop being a dirty birdie.

King is far more influenced by fairytales than is the average author. He doesn’t borrow fairytale stories but he clearly uses their structuring and devices: much of his early work could be described as “morality-based supernatural revenge” (Carrie, Thinner), or “Faustian pact with the Other Side” (Pet Sematary, “Sometimes They Come Back”). In his nonfiction writing, King repeatedly deconstructs fairy tales as models of how to build gripping, effective stories. So maybe a straight fairytale will turn out to be one of the five or six things he does really well. Let’s see!

Fairy Tale opens strong. A young man named Charlie McGee Reade (who, in a bold stroke of avant-garde experimentalism from King, is not from Maine) rescues an old man, Howard Bowditch, who lives alone in a creepy house on a hill and has broken his leg. The two strike up a diffident friendship. The old man doesn’t reveal much of his past but seems to be very rich: he pays a large hospital bill with literal nuggets of gold. Soon, the boy suspects that Howard has a passageway to a magical fairytale realm hidden inside his shed (don’t we all?)

This old-man-young-man relationship is masterfully drawn. Howard comes alive as a cantankerous grump, as does Charlie as a reformed bully (and borderline juvenile delinquent) with anger management issues. How did he become “reformed”? Because one day, he had a realization. Why am doing this? This is not who I am. This tiny moment, barely a sentence on the page, froze me in place. I once had a similar moment in my own life. This is not me. I’d never seen it depicted in a book before.

Other scenes, like Charlie’s alcoholic dad, and Mr Bowditch in the hospital, are raw and powerful. Every detail is well-chosen, and feels true to life. King writes excellently when he writes what he knows.

But then Charlie leaves the real world and enters the fairy realm through the tunnel in Mr Bowditch’s shed. The book becomes a chore. The pace, already slow, becomes torturous. A pattern asserts itself where Charlie meets some weird person, has some weird interactions, receives some exposition so the plot can creak forward a little, and so on. This goes on for an incredibly long time. Fairy tales are brief and light for a reason: it’s difficult to spend a long period of time in a fantasy world without subjecting it to logical scrutiny. I started to look at the gigantic sheaf of pages remaining in the book with mounting concern.

King’s mythical faux-Scandinavian setting is largely cribbed from movies—The Wizard of Oz is a far more palpable influence than the Brothers Grimm—and isn’t that interesting. The fantasy land of Empis never seems real. “Of course it can’t, it’s a fantasy world.” No. Tolkien’s Middle Earth seems real. So does CS Lewis’s Narnia (more so in the later books than in the first). So what’s different here? Well, Empis feels small. Nearly everyone Charlie meets in his quest is someone important: they’re either an exiled prince or princess, an agent of the enemy, or a person of clear signifance to the story. Imagine walking down a street in America, and the first people you see are Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King Jr. You wouldn’t feel like you’re in America, but in a theme park version of America. Fairy Tale has the same quality.

Yes, the first Narnia book also has the “hero randomly meets the most important person in the land” trope. But later books stretch out Narnia’s horizons and add more detail. We soon get the sense that it’s a real place with a thousand years of history bubbling beneath its skin: wars, politics, alliances. And Middle Earth is fully-formed and believable from the first page of The Hobbit. By contrast, Empis never shakes the feel that it’s an incestuous little toyland with a couple dozen people in it. It’s transparently fake. We do not care much about what happens to it.

The haunted, mythic city of Lilimar initially proves an effective setting change. But the endless scenes in the dungeon take on a tedium of a D&D campaign where nobody will jog the damn story along. The villains and monsters are more idiotic than scary. Every challenge gets literalized in a really annoying way, with Charlie figuring out his enemy’s “weakness”, like they’re bosses in a videogame.

Charlie’s hair starts to change. Once brown, it becomes blond. His eyes turn blue. He’s now a Disney Prince, a dashing Aryan ubermensch. This breaks the first rule of fairytales: they must never be aware that they are fairytales. King’s frequent references to Rumpelstiltskin (as well as his own work—I noticed Cujo and The Dark Tower) make things seem even more fake. Charlie is obviously being selected by this land (through some obscure logic that starts with “writer’s” and ends in “convenience”) as its hero and champion. Yet Charlie doesn’t have much of a personal stake in this fake world, or the Gallien dynasty. His one motive is to find some artifact of eternal youth to save his dog. He is forever an outsider, and his outsiderness locks us out of the story, in turn.

But there’s a lot of stuff I like. The characters are well done and believable. All of the stuff set in the real world is fascinating. There’s a subtle twist at the end that (despite being arbitrary) causes you to rethink many things that happened earlier. But whenever magic enters the story, it ruins it, making it perversely unmagical. Can King write this kind of story? No, he cannot. May he not write another.

* Want an example? Here’s the foreword of the expanded version of The Stand, with emphasis (and edits for length) by me.

If all of the story is there, one might ask, then why bother? Isn’t it indulgence after all? It better not be; if it is, then I have spent a large portion of my life wasting my time. As it happens, I think that in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. If that were not so, the following would be a perfectly acceptable version of “Hansel and Gretel”:

Hansel and Gretel were two children with a nice father and a nice mother. The nice mother died, and the father married a bitch. The bitch wanted the kids out of the way so she’d have more money to spend on herself. She bullied her spineless, soft-headed hubby into taking Hansel and Gretel into the woods and killing them. The kids’ father relented at the last moment, allowing them to live so they could starve to death in the woods instead of dying quickly and mercifully at the blade of his knife. While they were wandering around, they found a house made out of candy. It was owned by a witch who was into cannibalism. She locked them up and told them that when they were good and fat, she was going to eat them. But the kids got the best of her. Hansel shoved her into her own oven. They found the witch’s treasure, and they must have found a map, too, because they eventually arrived home again. When they got there, Dad gave the bitch the boot and they lived happily ever after. The End.

I don’t know what you think, but for me, that version’s a loser. The story is there, but it’s not elegant. It’s like a Cadillac with the chrome stripped off and the paint sanded down to dull metal. It goes somewhere, but it ain’t, you know, boss.

[..] Returning to “Hansel and Gretel” for just a moment, you may remember that the wicked stepmother demands that her husband bring her the hearts of the children as proof that the hapless woodcutter has done as she has ordered.

The woodcutter demonstrates one dim vestige of intelligence by bringing her the hearts of two rabbits. Or take the famous trail of breadcrumbs Hansel leaves behind, so he and his sister can find their way back. Thinking dude! But when he attempts to follow the backtrail, he finds that the birds have eaten it. Neither of these bits are strictly essential to the plot, but in another way they make the plot they are great and magical bits of storytelling. They change what could have been a dull piece of work into a tale which has charmed and terrified readers for over a hundred years.

That’s well put. It reminds me of something Barthes calls L’effet de réel: the inclusion of a small, seemingly irrelevant detail that is merely there “because that’s the way it really happened and so it has to be noted as such”. Stories will never be reality, but the Effect of the Real explains how they seem to be reality.

No Comments »

Comments are moderated and may take up to 24 hours to appear.

No comments yet.

RSS TrackBack URL

Leave a comment