CN: discusses ableist and racist tropes and language; spoilers for Fairy Tale by Stephen King
The 2022 fantasy novel Fairy Tale by Stephen King is replete with ableist tropes, as is typical of many novels inspired by fairy tales. The inhabitants of the magical land of Empis experience a disabling epidemic. The story depicts disability as monstrous, grotesque, punishment, revenge, and a curse, which is magically cured. The residents also need the protagonist, Charlie Reade — a white, non-disabled boy whose hair turns from brown to blond and whose eyes turn from brown to blue during his time in Empis — to save them from the curse. This combines an abled savior from another world, who fits prophecies of a Chosen One figure, with a magical cure narrative. The novel’s constant, casually ableist language repeatedly calls non-disabled people “whole people” and conflates people with dwarfism with malevolent, fairy tale dwarfs. Fairy Tale relies on ancient, ableist stereotypes and archetypes from folklore, which are often unintentional and unconscious. This can make them hard to avoid unless authors and publishers are familiar with literary ableism and consciously try not to perpetuate it.
Charlie Reade, the protagonist, is a white, six-foot-tall, able-bodied high school football player with brown hair and brown eyes. He saves the life of his elderly neighbor, Howard Bowditch, and later befriends and cares for Howard and his dog, Radar. Not everything in this book is ableist. I liked chapters near the beginning of the novel, describing Bowditch’s physical therapy and adapting his home to be more accessible to him. As a disabled writer, I found these parts realistic and not ableist.
After Howard’s death, Charlie inherits Radar, plus Bowditch’s house, with its mysterious cache of gold in a shed outside. Through letters and audio cassette tapes Bowditch left him, Charlie learns that Howard changed his name from Adrian and obscured his birth date to hide the fact that he was around 120 years old. The backyard shed conceals the entrance to an alternate world, where a magical sundial can artificially extend people’s and animals’ lives. Charlie decides to travel to Empis, hoping to de-age Radar, his beloved dog.
The story becomes ableist only after it enters the magical land of Empis. In September 2022 in The Michigan Daily, Emilia Ferrante wrote, “The magic of Stephen King’s ‘Fairy Tale’ is there — but is lessened by its pacing and ableism.” Some of the pacing issues are typical of King’s writing style and how he gradually builds character and atmosphere. I agree about the ableism, though. Ferrante writes:
“King doesn’t fall into the more common and arguably more concerning category of equating disfigurement with innate evil, but he does render the gray people somewhat helpless and in need of a (white, able-bodied) savior in the form of our very own Charlie (whose brown hair and brown eyes quite literally transform into blonde hair and blue eyes while he’s in Empis). Those in Empis who are immune to the grayness are people who are related by blood to the royal family — the problems there probably go without saying. While misguided in its execution, this may have been King’s take on a mass disabling event, given that the novel was started in late 2020 and he mentions COVID-19 in the acknowledgments.”
Ferrante’s analysis is nuanced and spot-on. While it doesn’t necessarily depict all disability as evil, the story literally portrays disability as a curse and a punishment. It also frequently equates it with ugliness. It’s often a metaphor for abstract evil in the novel’s value system. Empis’ Princess Leah (pronounced like Princess Leia from Star Wars, Charlie tells us) believes that her siblings were assassinated, along with their parents. The locals, though, believe her brother Elden survived and became Flight Killer, an agent of the evil giant Gogmagog. They blame Flight Killer for awakening evil and causing “the gray,” a disease that causes sensory disabilities, facial and limb changes, and eventually, death.
When Charlie first meets someone with the gray, a woman named Dora, he pities her: “and it made me sad, the same way I felt when I saw someone blind, or a person in a wheelchair who was never going to walk again” (King 225). Throughout the novel, Charlie continues to pity disabled people and directly compare the magical curse to disability in our world. He regrets bullying a disabled man years earlier, and he meets many heroic disabled people. However, he still never considers us equals.
The royal family has a hereditary immunity to the gray, although the curse still makes them disabled. As Ferrante points out, any form of genetic supremacy, especially of blonde, white nobility, is necessarily fraught and problematic. For another literary example of a white, genetically superior, long-awaited savior from a foreign world, and the biases inherent in that narrative, please check out my recent essay on Paul Atreides from Dune.
Many disabled characters in this novel are heroic, including Percival AKA “Pursey,” Dora, Princess Leah, and her relatives, Woody and Claudia. That’s not enough, though. Disabled characters in this book are either victims who need to be saved or have disability as their villain origin story.
Charlie is attracted to Leah, but she has a small cut instead of a mouth, which horrifies him. Immediately after observing that Leah has no mouth, Charlie makes a comparison to the original versions of “Rapunzel.” The prince falls on thorns, blinding him, and Rapunzel’s tears cure him, Charlie says. Leah opens her cut, making herself bleed, to eat or drink. Charlie compares it to a tracheotomy. Repeated comparisons to real, specific disabilities and procedures suggest the ableism is at least partly intentional, not coincidental.
Charlie fantasizes about curing and saving Leah. “Talk about a damsel in distress,” he thinks, watching her eat (264). He thinks: “Besides, show me a healthy teenage boy who doesn’t want to be the hero of the story, one who helps the beautiful girl, and I’ll show you no one at all” (241). This passage baffles me because it contains so many innate assumptions. It seemingly conflates being “a healthy teenage boy” with being cisgender, heterosexual, and allo-romantic. In other words, it’s normative and makes faulty generalizations in several different ways.
Many characters repeatedly describe Charlie as a “whole person” because he is healthy, non-disabled, and not gray. Before his eyes and hair start turning lighter, it’s the first sign that he may be Empis’ “promised prince.” As Leah’s relative Claudia later tells him: “You have all the senses of which we have been robbed” (496). It’s impossible to describe non-disabled, healthy people as “whole,” in direct contrast to disabled people, without also implying disabled people are tragic, defective, lacking, or broken.
I won’t quote every repetitive instance of ableism I found because it’s constant. The narrative uses tons of casually ableist language like dumb, stupid, crippled, crazy, and lame, sometimes used as insults or as metaphors, without push-back or ever saying this is wrong. Charlie describes characters with the gray as deformed, disfigured, ugly, malformed, and misshapen. Much of the ableism in Fairy Tale is specifically disfiguremisia, a form of ableism towards people with limb and facial differences. Mikaela Moody coined the term disfiguremisia.
Charlie derisively compares the use of electronics to walking with a crutch (312). Ironically, electronics can be assistive devices in many ways, from text to speech to screen readers, and many more. However, that’s not the meaning here. The implication is that people rely on both cell phones and crutches too much or don’t really need them.
The constant comparisons to disabilities in our world are explicit, not a reach or interpretation. The curse is a “progressive sickness or disease” (246). When meeting Leah’s uncle Woody, who is blind, Charlie thinks: “He was whole; yet he wasn’t” (264). The novel constantly and explicitly equates being able-bodied with being “whole.”
The novel also draws explicit connections between Rumpelstiltskin, similar folkloric figures, and people with dwarfism. The Rumpelstiltskin reference is foreshadowed when Charlie’s mother dies on the oddly named Rumple Bridge in Illinois during his childhood. In Empis, Charlie thinks he sees a kid torturing insects, but “it’s actually a dwarf” named Peterkin (257). He means a Little Person or a person with dwarfism. “Never call them [the m-word for Little People],” Charlie’s dad says, but the book prints the full word (258).
Fairy Tale uses the word dwarf to blur the line between people with dwarfism and mythical creatures. Charlie repeatedly compares Peterkin to Christopher Polley. Back in Charlie’s world, Polley murdered Mr. Heinrich, the broker to whom Bowditch sold his gold, and then Polley attacked Charlie. I think Polley does not have dwarfism, but he’s constantly compared to Rumpelstiltskin and Peterkin. Charlie later dismisses the idea that Peterkin was cruel because he was short. However, the whole book paints him as a fairy-tale archetype of a devious imp, while calling him a dwarf.
A villain in several ways, Peterkin gets Charlie and Radar stuck in the cursed city of Lilimar by erasing Bowditch’s marks on trees from his visits to Empis decades earlier. Peterkin’s death is awful and gruesome. He’s literally ripped apart and in half. Like in many fairy tales, it’s implied he deserves it. The giant crickets, whom Peterkin tortured, turn out to help Charlie and his friends immensely. It’s interesting who gets developed and redeemed here as characters and who doesn’t.
When Amanda Leduc interviewed me for her 2020 nonfiction book Disfigured, I mentioned many examples of fairy tales stigmatizing disability as ugly and evil. I’ve written about the connections between disability and fairy tales since I was in college in 2009.
For Disfigured, Amanda Leduc also interviewed Rebecca Cokley extensively. Cokley, a writer and activist with achondroplasia, described how people often harass her, using movies and books like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Wizard of Oz to mock her and her family’s dwarfism.
The gray was Elden’s “revenge” for ableist bullying from siblings, Woody says. Even though she was the only person who was kind to him, Elden punished Leah as well because he thought she left him. She believed he was dead.
Recently, viewers criticized Wonder Woman and Detective Pikachu for using disability as a villain’s origin story. This is also what happens with Elden. Elden had a limb difference, even before becoming Flight Killer. He becomes more “disfigured” after becoming Flight Killer. Charlie calls him a “grotesque creature” (551). Elden traded his disability “for something far worse” (552). Elden “hates beauty,” killing “whole people” and monarch butterflies.
Near the end of the book, when he defeats Gogmagog, there’s a scene of “deformed” people “falling to their knees around” Charlie in gratitude (482). Charlie considers it “too horrible even to consider” that Leah may be permanently unable to speak (562). The theme of pitying disabled people or viewing us as tragic is constant.
Crying, Charlie confesses to Leah that he and a friend once mocked a disabled man and stole his crutches. Or, as he says, “We saw a crippled man there” (576). Yes, he’s learned something and is now remorseful, but he still pities us. Furthermore, his main reason for telling this story is to use a crutch as a metaphor. He calls Leah’s false belief (that Elden was dead and never became Flight Killer) her “crutch.”
Charlie says he was born in 1996, making him a younger Millennial, but he talks much more like a Baby Boomer. The book takes place mostly in 2013. There are constant TCM references, but nothing referring to any media from Charlie’s childhood, despite many references to Charlie’s childhood peers.
Charlie describes one TCM movie as “Paul Newman was in it, playing an Indian” (568). From looking online, I assume he’s referring to Hombre from 1967, which I’ve never seen. A white character or author in 2022 should not describe Indigenous people from the Americas as Charlie does. Like with the many instances of ableist language, this is possibly unintentional racism that a copy-editor should have changed at some point. This is irrelevant to the story and gratuitous. It should have been cut.
Although the novel weaves King’s influences plausibly into Charlie’s narration, it still can’t quite account for the generation gap. Near the end of the book, Charlie acknowledges he doesn’t sound 17 and explains he later got a BA and Ph.D. in English literature from NYU (591). Throughout the book, he explains how he knows so much about King’s own literary influences and interests. For example, a middle school crush got Charlie interested in H. P. Lovecraft, whom King references by his initials in his dedication. This makes sense but doesn’t quite explain how Charlie talks, either. More precisely, he doesn’t sound at all like he was born in 1996, regardless of his age when the story takes place.
Fairy Tale uncritically uses frequent ableist language, plus several ableist tropes common in fantasy. These include disability as metaphor, punishment, and curse, requiring a magical cure from an abled savior from another world. Its characters repeatedly call non-disabled people “whole people” while describing disabled people as horrifying. Specifically, this ableism is often directed toward Little People (people with dwarfism), people with limb or facial differences, chronic, progressive illness, and mobility and sensory disabilities.
From interviews and the author’s note, which pays tribute to fans who died from COVID-19, I don’t think that King intends any ableist, racist, sexist, or anti-LGBTQIA language or themes in his work. The author’s intent does not neutralize stereotypes, though. Writers, publishers, and editors should familiarize themselves with ableist and racist stereotypes and language and try to avoid perpetuating them in their published books. Of course, opinions on this book will vary and are subjective, but that’s why I love analyzing literature.
Despite the ableism, I enjoyed many aspects of this novel. Fairy Tale’s intertextuality is fascinating, incorporating many European fairy tales, including “The Goose Girl,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and more. I loved the world-building, the vernacular, which felt real, and the Night Soldiers: undead, electrified skeletons, whom Charlie defeats with water.
Stephen King is an extremely imaginative writer and storyteller, and most readers and viewers would probably agree with me on that. Many of his novels, their numerous TV and film adaptations, and his nonfiction book On Writing have been very influential to me, my family, and friends.
King, Stephen. Fairy Tale. New York: Scribner, 2022.