Without a doubt, Stephen King is a singular editorial phenomenon. Since the release of his first novel, Carrie, in 1977, he has published 65 books and the number of film and television adaptations of his stories, beginning with the 1979 television series Salem’s Lot, has now reached an astonishing 87. With lifetime sales of over 350 million books and earnings of over $500 million, he’s been dubbed the King of Horror, but his work spans far more popular genres than that, including fiction. supernatural, suspense, crime, science fiction and fantasy, as well as autobiography and non-fiction.
he center of King’s latest work – the title alone places him firmly in the fantasy section of his CV – is 17-year-old Charlie Reade. Charlie looks and acts like an ordinary American high school student from a small town. Taller than most, of course, bulkier too, he is excellent at baseball and football, but he is not a sportsman as he is a good and attentive student. However, although you would never guess it from looking at him, Charlie had quite a difficult life. His mother was accidentally killed when he was just a child, a tragedy that sent his father into alcoholism and penury.
Somehow, Charlie managed to keep them afloat, cleaning up after his father and feeding them both, until, with the help of a former colleague who was also an alcoholic, her father goes to AA and gets sober. They now have, as Charlie enters his senior year in high school, an admirable and loving relationship.
Deep down, Charlie is a decent young man. By no means a goody-goody – it had its moments of juvenile delinquency – but its default mode is generous and caring. When a reclusive elderly neighbor, Mr. Bowditch, who has a reputation for being grumpy and difficult, falls and breaks his leg trying to fix his porch, Charlie helps him and offers to look after him and his scruffy old dog, Radar, as he recuperates.
As he tidies up the dilapidated property, Charlie finds a tightly locked shed at the end of the acre of garden. Strange noises come from it from time to time, but Bowditch warns him to stay away from it and never try to enter. When Bowditch dies, Charlie is stunned to learn that the old man has made him his sole heir. Among his effects is an old tape in which Bowditch tells the strange story of what is in the garden shed. Inside, Bowditch tells Charlie, is a portal to another parallel world, a sort of “Jack and the Beanstalk Inside Out” world, a place of ghastly evil and great danger, but also unimaginable wealth. He also has a special magical device where the aged and rapidly fading radar can perhaps be rejuvenated.
Charlie, who has now lost his heart to Radar, decides that to save her they must descend the 185 stone steps under the shed. When they get to the bottom, they find low, overcast skies, fields of bright red poppies, a winding, unpaved road, and in the distance the spiers of a large city. Raised on the Christmas reruns diet of The Wizard of OzCharlie recognizes an Emerald City when he sees one.
From there, King puts his impressive imagination into pedal-metal training and Charlie, who appears as an almost Disney-like prince charming to the denizens of this other world, must endure extraordinary labors and dangers that will test his courage and resolve if he must prevent an overwhelming evil entity, the name that must never be mentioned, Gogmagog, who is intent on destroying his own world and ours.
There are echoes of John Connolly’s excellent fantasy The book of lost things here – the loss of a mother at a young age and entering a strange world populated by familiar characters from children’s literature – but Charlie Reade’s cultural references are those of popular 20th century TV shows and films . As so often in his works, elements of King’s own life blend seamlessly into the narrative.
The loss of Charlie’s mother to a distracted driver recalls King’s experience of being mowed down on a road near his Maine home, suffering multiple serious injuries and nearly losing a leg. Like Charlie’s father, King also developed a decade-long addiction to alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs in the 1980s.
Video of the day
King tells this wondrously fantastical tale with such simple skill that the reader can’t help but become fully invested in Charlie and all the characters, his evocation of small town America in the late 20th century and its people are perfect, and his descriptions of the parallel world of Empis and the emerald city of Lilimar are terrifying.
Thriller: Stephen King’s Fairy Tale
Hodder & Stoughton, 592 pages, hardcover €21.23; e-book €12.99