Stephen King was fundamental to my formative years in storytelling, and I know I’m far from alone in that. His writing has touched millions, and his reputation has preceded him for many more than that. You know all of this.
(If you really just want the review, scroll down to the subheading. You can’t miss it.)
When I was discovering fiction writing as a central part of my life, I found myself connecting with and inspired by his stories more than many other writers’. Like the literary elite, who might still puzzle over what it is about King’s work that people like so much, I’ve spent much of my studies thinking about why his work resonates with me. Is it the fascination with the dark and macabre? Is it some deep-seated psychological need for me to gaze into the unknown? Do I ironically find delight in terror? Wait, is there something wrong with me? I think if it were any of these things, any horror author would do, and that’s at least not how I work.
Despite the “King of Horror” moniker, my appreciation of King’s writing has nothing to do with the genre. I’d actually digress into a long-winded rant about how King isn’t just a horror writer, but I’ll spare you. Moreover, I think reading Stephen King’s work as an aspiring writer has a lot to offer because of his popularity. I think there’s a value in any fiction writer who takes their craft seriously to study what readers are attracted to and why, because it offers valuable insight into our own reader dispositions.
The answer is simple, I think, and it comes in two parts. The first is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg thing for us writers. People pick up his books because they know his name. He’s acquired notoriety, and he did it through the horror genre, true, but I don’t think that’s why Stephen King became such a phenomenon. If it was, we’d see horror as a mainstream form of entertainment and art (which I digressively argue are synonymous, but alas); however, it’s still a subculture.
The other, more important part: His storytelling is natural and accessible, utterly without pretense. It flows out of him, and he allows it to. In one of his Dark Tower books, King actually appears as a character within the story (that actually sounds cringy, as the kids are wont to describe anything they find off-putting these days, but it works within the context of what the Dark Tower does). In this story, he describes his writing as coming from elsewhere and passing through him, as if he is a conduit. He uses the metaphor that his stories are threads he pulls from his bellybutton, and that image has always stuck with me.
That idea, the dissociation of a writer from their writing, has always compelled me. The “can or should we separate the artist from their art?” conversation misses the point that, to create something, the artist has to get out of the way; to truly create, an artist has to disassociate from their work. This is something fundamental to King’s literary existence, I think, and why people like him so much.
Simply, King loves storytelling. He delights in it as much as we do. It is his passion, and we get to watch him play, charged with creativity and imagination, on the page. That element glows at the heart of his latest novel, Fairy Tale.
Okay, finally, the review without further pre-ramble…
One of the things I appreciate most about Fairy Tale is it’s anything but formulaic. There’s something meta-fictional here about how King is emulating or paying homage to western folk and fairy tales, but he’s done something interesting with this story’s evolution. It’s essentially a tale in four acts, and each act fundamentally upends the narrative. Once you’ve completed this journey, you’ll be amazed at where you started and where you ended, and that isn’t so much a comment about its 600-page length as it is the evolution of the story. Without spoiling it, Fairy Tale is a book of four distinct stories contained within a single narrative, and King weaves them together seamlessly. In the hands of a less seasoned writer, I’d bet such a prospect would turn into something of a Frankenstein’s monster, but the whole book, as fantastical as it is, works.
Of course, that leads to the question of how well it works. To be frank, Fairy Tale is at times a bit rough around the edges. King could have done with some cuts, and some of the prose can be a bit of a blunt tool; it does the job, but it’s not always exactly craftsmanship. To boot, King—likely as a product of his playfulness—devises some fun quirks in the narration; however, they get a bit old, and in some circumstances, they might even be offensive. For instance, one character who arrives a little more than halfway through the book is deaf, and anytime she speaks, King writes her dialogue in all caps. We get it, Steve. She shouts because she doesn’t know the volume at which she speaks. In honesty, I think King could have done without that.
Elements such as those in Fairy Tale are unfortunate byproducts of King’s prolific nature. For a writer who cranks out two novels (which are often long enough to be multiple novels themselves) a year, it doesn’t leave much time to live with and revise a story. King has said he recommends finishing the first draft of a novel in a season. Presumably, he spends another season on revision, if he adheres to that timeline. Fairy Tale’s core is really compelling, and it’s a fun ride. Unfortunately, I did feel portions of it could have used further development for it to be a truly great book. Perhaps another season.
I think that’s not really King’s bag, though. As a baseball fan, he might appreciate the analogy that he operates like a team’s lineup. With each at-bat, he gets his chance to hit the ball, and with each pitch, he takes his swing, the best that he can; they’re not all going to be homers.
I get that, and I don’t think Fairy Tale is a strikeout by any means. I just think he didn’t quite hit the sweet spot on the barrel.
If nothing else, though, I think Fairy Tale is a book any writer can look at and respect, if not appreciate. After almost half a century of publishing novels and short stories, with anything bearing his name raking in money, King still finds ways to experiment and play. As I proposed, that’s part of his appeal. In this one, the novel’s voice takes the spotlight, in my humble opinion.
King is no stranger to voice-y writing, narrators that you can hear sing off the page. I think writers, in general, no matter the aesthetic, style, or genre, can learn a TON from Stephen King about voice. It’s fascinating here. Fairy Tale is written in first-person, retrospective perspective. What that means is the narrator is literally writing down this tale within the storytelling. This has become something of a favorite of mine for a couple of reasons. First, it grants the actual writer—King, in this case—much freedom in how the words, sentences, and paragraphs are assembled. The very diction of the narration is something the writer can play with. Second, I also like it because it means the narrator is actually a character in the story with a stake in how it’s told. Here, King puts that on display from the very first lines: “I’m sure I can tell this story. I’m also sure no one will believe it.”
It’s a bit more nuanced treatment than an unreliable narrator in the way that, while I don’t doubt the narrator actually experienced these events, I do question if he’s telling it exactly the way it happened. Is he embellishing, for example? And if he is, why? And, what does that say about him? The answers are usually unobtainable because we have nothing but the narrator’s word to go on, and I don’t care about that. What I do care about is how the treatment lends an authenticity to the storytelling. It feels like you’re listening to your crazy uncle tell a story about something that happened to him as a kid, and that gives you a sense that you can let go of the details that don’t matter in favor of the ones that do. The perspective grants the reader freedom, too, and it helps the tale become a more enjoyable experience, one in which the words and paper disappear and we are transported there, to that world, where a teenage boy discovers his life’s purpose in a crotchety old man and his aging dog, which once terrorized the neighborhood. Where it leads is absolutely wonderful, and as fiction writing goes, isn’t that more important than anything anyway?
The Bottom Line
If you’re a reader who’s looking to immerse yourself in a fantastical world and take a wild ride through a work of pure imagination, Fairy Tale is a good bet. If you’re a Stephen King Constant Reader, Fairy Tale is a fun book with plenty of fan service that you’ll enjoy, but probably not as much as his other books. If you’re looking to get into King, there are better books to start with, but one thing Fairy Tale does well is introduce you to King’s dark fantasy writing involving young people. If you’re a hyper critical reader who clutches to the classics and conventional craft wisdom as a standard for good fiction writing and demands perfection, I think you’ll find plenty to nitpick here, and you’ll probably just ruin the experience for yourself.