By Stephen King
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Stephen King baffles me.
To be fully transparent, I kind of love Stephen King. I’ve been reading his books since I was a kid; I’ve read at least a dozen over the years, including some of his real stinkers (‘Cell’), and I have always (always!) enjoyed them. However, I have also always been left with a nagging inability to say what, exactly, it was about them that I was enjoying.
King is usually thought of as a master of plot, but he isn’t. Some of his books are very well plotted, yes, but he’s not at all reliable in this space. Think about a book like, say, ‘Tommyknockers’, which goes totally off the rails, or the Dark Tower series, with its weird introduction of Stepthen King, the Author, as a character in the middle (I actually loved it, but it was weird). Really, when people say that King is a master of plot, I think that what they actually mean is that he is an amazing generator of premises, which is true, but a premise can only you take so far.
And it’s certainly not the quality of his prose. I don’t mean to imply that King is a bad writer – he’s not. He leans a little too hard on a conversational tone (especially in his later career), and he’s repetitive, but I would challenge anyone to publish the millions of words he has published and not repeat themselves sometimes. Let’s just say his prose is utilitarian: no one has ever accused him of writing poetry.
But, as I said, I have enjoyed every book of his I’ve ever read, and his success is undeniable. He’s doing something right, I’ve just never really known precisely what it was.
I just finished ‘Fairy Tale’, his latest, and, unfortunately, I am not closer to figuring it out. ‘Fairy Tale’ is less horror, more fantasy, better in line with books like ‘The Stand’ and the Dark Tower books than, say, ‘Salem’s Lot’ or ‘Pet Semetary’.
‘Fairy Tale’ is the story of Charlie, an American high schooler. Charlie seems typical, but isn’t: he lost his mother in an accident when he was quite young, and his father descended, for a time, into alcoholism. Now, his father is sober and rebuilding his life, and Charlie is doing well: an excellent student, a varsity athlete, a well-liked and kind boy. One day, though, as Charlie is heading home from practice, he hears the frantic barking of a dog from the spooky old house down the street from where he lives. When Charlie goes to investigate, he discovers Mr. Bowditch, the owner of the house, fallen, with a badly broken leg, and guarded by an ancient German Shepard named Radar. Almost immediately, Charlie falls completely in love with Radar, and this attachment draws him further and further into Mr. Bowditch’s life. As Mr. Bowditch begins to heal from his accident, Radar begins to fail. And as Mr. Bowditch comes to trust Charlie, he lets him in on the secret that Bowditch has guarded his entire life: in the shed in his backyard, there is a doorway into another world, a world full of all the fairy tale creatures we have glimpsed in stories. And, in that world, there is machine that can save Radar’s life.
I felt reading ‘Fairy Tale’ what I usually feel when reading a King novel: mildly contemptuous and yet totally absorbed. So much of what he writes seems obvious, simplistic, or even stupid, yet I could not put the book down. Parts of ‘Fairy Tale’ are downright corny, but it did not stop me from caring what happened. And not because I didn’t know what was going to happen – on the contrary, ‘Fairy Tale’ is very predictable. I cared only because the book was fun to read.
‘Fairy Tale’ is a classic Hero’s Quest, and it has the feel of a book that has been kicking around in someone’s head for a while. If I had to bet, I would guesss that King has been stewing on fairy tales for years, thinking about the darkness of the original stories, the ways in which we moderns have sanitized them, the themes and tropes which are worn so smooth at this point that they are functionally universal. I suspect he has wanted to answer those stories for a long time now, to explicate and pull the darkness back into the fore.
It’s not hard to see why, and, though it has been the project of many authors before him, it’s obvious why King would consider himself the man for the job. He is a man with a skill for re-imagining old stories, for layering darkness onto familiar scenes. And, certainly, he has applied himself to fairy tales with aplomb.
I wondered while reading “Fairy Tale’ whether what King brings to the table is less any specific writerly skill than his un-self-conscious enthusiasm. King throws his whole self at his stories: though they are always outlandish, he never hides behind irony or sarcasm (or even metaphor.) He keeps no emotional distance from his content – whatever comes pouring out of his pen, he gives it as much life as he can. Maybe there is something infectious about that kind of sincerity.
‘Fairy Tale’ often gave me the sense that I was along for an eccentric journey with an enthusiast. It wasn’t the itinerary I would have picked, if I were traveling alone, but my guide was so into it that it had an unexpected pleasure.
King’s enthusiasm (for his topics, his characters, and his authorial predecessors) protects his readers from feeling stupid. I’m not sure that I can think of many other authors who could write about, say, the old woman who lived in a shoe without making their readers feel like complete idiots. King is creative, certainly, but I don’t think that’s enough. I think his books work (insofar as they do) because he is also totally confident. King loves stories and he doesn’t see any reason why he should be embarrassed about telling any of them.
He might be on to something there. Maybe the point of stories isn’t that they are new, or surprising, or instructive. Maybe the point of stories is merely that they transport and entertain. Maybe the secret of King’s success is that he’s not worrying about being “good”, he’s just enjoying himself, and his enjoyment spills over onto us. It doesn’t matter if the ground is well worn or not; what matters is whether the ground is fun to walk on.
And King has an unsurpassed sense of where the fun ground is. Perhaps this, more than anything, is the secret to his success: he has a tremendous instinct for fun. He’s never let me down on this: he has never sacrificed his fun in order to be literary. Even when his plots are bizarre (‘Cell’), they are fun.
And ‘Fairy Tale’ is fun. It’s fun to read. Like all King’s books, it’s easy and weird and fun. No one else could have written it. Probably, no one else would have tried, but certainly no one else could have succeeded.