In 1984, after a decade of stunning success as a horror novelist, Stephen King decided to write an illustrated fairytale for children. The result, The Eyes of the Dragon, flopped so hard with some fans that he turned around and wrote Misery, the story of a bestselling author who is trapped, figuratively and then literally, by rabid fans who wanted him to deliver only more of the same.
The fairytale was still a commercial success—it was a bestseller with a million-copy paperback first printing—but the story never had the impact of many of King's other books. In fact, when I tried to track it down in Missoula this week, the search took the better part of the afternoon before I finally uncovered a dog-eared copy at a local high school (an electronic Kindle version will be released in December).
Fittingly, I first discovered the book in a high school, too. As a freshman in 1994, I found a bent and broken-backed copy on a bookshelf in my English class. Grabbed by the tale after just a few pages, I stuffed it in my backpack.
I'd already read lots of King novels in middle school: The Shining and Cujo and Carrie and Pet Sematary among others. I'd even listened to Dolores Claiborne on about a billion rattling cassette tapes during a family road trip the summer before. But this one was different. It was illustrated with pencil drawings and started like a bedtime story: "Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a king with two sons."
I continued reading the story (King prefers not to call it a novel) that day, curled up on the school bus, as I often was, and then through the afternoon stretched out on my family's window seat.
I shared a room with my younger sister and so when it was time for lights out, I dove under the covers with the 400-page book and a book light, a fantasy world expanding in a tiny blanketed dome. Poisoned goblets, evil magicians and daring escapes—and, yes, a dragon hunt, followed one after another at a tremendous clip. When I was sure my sister was asleep, I emerged from my blankets into the coolness of the room, the small light still creating an orb only big enough to hold me and my book.
I fought sleep to finish the story. I had to know what happened. The story finally climaxes in a chase, the chapters shortening to single sentences that bounce between the perspectives of the good guy and the bad guy—between good and evil. I finished just as my book light was dimming and not long before sunrise. It was the first time I had stayed up all night reading a book.
When King conceived the story in the 1980s, though, it was to put children to sleep, not to keep them up at all hours. The book is dedicated to his daughter, Naomi, who grew up hearing the tale from her dad in the form of a bedtime story. It shows. The book reads as if it is being told orally, and perhaps the most special aspect of the book is the narrator: a loving person who nonetheless wants to shock and entertain, and someone supremely sensitive to the concerns of the young listener. In other words, it is King to his daughter. In other words, it is all parents to all their children. New York Times book reviewer Barbara Tritel compared the voice to the narrator in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, and she's right. The Eyes of the Dragon is rich in the asides, explanations and wisdom so common in spoken narrative and classic kids' stories.
Still, the book was mainly marketed to adults in the '80s, ostensibly because of King's expansive established readership. He has since said the book is meant for people of all ages, but perhaps initially downplaying the book's fantasy genre and YA angle is the reason that most people have heard of Misery, but not that Stephen King book about dragons.
The fairytale itself is both traditional and not. The story follows two sibling princes, one strong, one weak, as well as a Rasputin-like adviser, Flagg. Flagg frames the stronger brother, Peter, for regicide, all in an attempt to make the weaker brother, Thomas, both King and his pawn. The tale marries all of the best components of fairytales with all of the best storytelling powers of King: the small telling details; the tight, pretty plots; and the expert pacing that has surely been both at the heart of his success and the demise of many, many book light batteries.
But this is not just a simple child's tale. The fairytale is a starting point for King, created with a foundation more reminiscent of his other darker coming of age novels, like The Body and It. It's about siblings struggling to find their adult voices and it's about processing the loss of loved ones. It's not even about good and evil, as I wrote above, it's about how good and evil are pretty complicated. This is never clearer than at the end of the book, in which our loving, paternal narrator can't quite deliver the clear-cut happy ending that I longed for at 14.
Did they all live happily ever after? They did not. No one ever does, in spite of what the stories may say. They had their good days, as you do, and they had their bad days, and you know about those. They had their victories, as you do, and they had their defeats, and you know about those, too. There were times when they felt ashamed of themselves, knowing that they had not done their best, and there were times when they knew they had stood where their God had meant them to stand. All I'm trying to say is that they lived as well as they could, each and every one of them; some lived longer than others, but all lived well, and bravely, and I love them all, and am not ashamed of my love.
Last night I opened The Eyes of the Dragon to look for a few quotes (like the one above) and to refamiliarize myself with the story ahead of writing this little essay. With a parade of writing deadlines laid in front of me for the week, and my two young children surely waking at dawn, I wouldn't have time for more. But that first chapter set me down the path of the tale, just as it had over 20 years ago, and urged me forward. The lights clicked off around the neighborhood one by one, and the noises faded, too, until I read just one more page and just one more page until the very last one.
Stephen King and his son Owen King read from their new novel Sleeping Beauties at the Dennison Theatre Mon., Oct. 2, at 6:30 PM. Sold out.