Published on 4th June 2013 on Bad Haven:
It is quite an embarrassing thing to admit that in the summer of 2013 I graduated from my Masters in English Literature, but I had never read a Stephen King book before. What can I say? I was too busy reading D. H. Lawrence and Nietzsche? It sounds disgustingly elitist but it’s true. Furthermore, to claim that I had no idea what to expect when I approached Joyland is accurately horrifying as well. From my limited pop-culture knowledge I knew that I was approaching the author lauded for The Shining (1977), but that was all. Perhaps that was why I was surprised to receive a book published by Hard Case Crime – a publishing house that seeks to revive the narrative and visual aesthetics of the pulp paperbacks of the 40s, 50s and 60s. Stephen King and a hard-boiled detective publishing house? My snobbish literary sensibilities went into overdrive: King attempting a Dashell Hammett? I was sceptical.
I shouldn’t have been. Joyland is not a mere nostalgic rehashing of the genre. Rather it is a clever synthesis of the detective novel, murder mystery, supernatural thriller, and a coming of age story. The story tells of the Devin Jones, a college student who takes up a summer job in an amusement park, whose attempts to recover from first love’s painful disintegration draws him deep into the strange atmosphere of Joyland and its “carny” residents. Learning from the outset that the park’s Haunted House was the site of the murder of a young woman, whose ghost suitably takes up residence there, the reader is lulled into the false sense that what will unfold in the subsequent pages will be the protagonist’s preoccupation with the murder (and more particularly with the murderer). Here is King’s first satisfying defiance of the reader’s expectations. His narrative is undoubtedly a whodunit, but it is one with substance. The protagonist states,
“If you read a whodunit or see a mystery movie, you can whistle gaily past whole reaps of corpses, only interested in finding out if it was the butler or the evil stepmother. But these had been real young women. Crows had probably ripped their flesh; maggots would have infested their eyes and squirmed up their noses and into the grey meat of their brains.” (p 201)
This is a potently self-reflexive moment for King, speaking through his protagonist to draw attention to the fact that his story far exceeds the voyeuristic nature of many attempts at the genre. Furthermore, it is a keen insight into what I believe is King’s greatest triumph in the novel – his leading man. Devin is no Continental Op who has lost his natural sympathy with his fellow men. Nor however, is he a Sherlock Holmes reincarnated (as the protagonist himself rightly points out). Instead, King creates a character whose empathy and compassion draws him deeper into the narratives of those around him, not just that of the murdered girl and the murderer, but of his fellow “carnies” and the young dying boy who proves instrumental to the story as a whole. But here I am in danger of giving away too much.
A murder mystery and the supernatural events in Joyland provide a backdrop and a catalyst for the sentimental and at times philosophical coming of age story that is both gripping and touching in equal measure. A newcomer to King, he has impressed me with his reinvention of not just one genre, but many. However, most of all, it is hard not to sing his praises for his skill as a storyteller with a keen insight into the human psyche. This shall not be the last King for me.
Joyland is released on 4th June by Hard Case Crime.