Set in a small-town amusement park in North Carolina in 1973, Joyland by Stephen King is a noir thriller (available June 4, 2013).
There’s a weird thing that happens when a writer’s name becomes a brand. On the one hand, readers start using it as shorthand—“the new John Grisham,” “the new Nicholas Sparks”—to convey their enthusiasm for their favorite author’s work. It’s an easy way of saying, “If you liked Grisham’s last book, you’re going to like this new one.” In these conversations, it doesn’t actually matter what the title of the new book is, you know that the writer is going to deliver a good read.
At the same time, though, brand name recognition sets up certain expectations. If you’re a Grisham fan, for instance, you might have been surprised, or even disappointed, when the king of legal thrillers came out with Skipping Christmas, an engaging story of one couple’s attempt to bypass the annual holiday madness. The novel had nothing to do with Grisham’s usual subject matter and was also so different in tone that calling it a “Grisham novel” was actually inaccurate even though it was a novel by John Grisham. (Skipping Christmas is my favorite of Grisham’s books, but then, I love Christmas even more than I love crime.)
How would Nicholas Sparks’s fans react if he suddenly produced a science fiction novel? (Unlikelier things have happened. Look at James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series—which always seem like pseudo X-Men stories to me—or Walter Mosley’s Blue Light, in which an intergalactic evil uses a human as his weapon of destruction.)
With Stephen King books, you’re dealing with a whole different set of expectation. It’s been a long time since he’s been dismissed as simply a horror writer, yet when you see one of his books in the library or the bookstore, more often than not, it’s shelved in the section devoted to horror. (And btw, even though King was an early and avid supporter of epublishing, Joyland is coming out in paperback and limited edition hardcover from Hard Case Crime and will only be available in actual book form, at least for the time being.)
So in calling Joyland a “Stephen King book,” you need to define your terms and you need to consider which subset of King’s fans you’re talking to. Are they the die-hard, read-everything-King-writes readers who delight in the author’s change-of-pace books such as Gerald’s Game or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon or Dolores Claiborne? Then what you tell them about Joyland is that this novel is not set in King’s beloved Maine, but in North Carolina, where a lovelorn working class kid named Devin Jones is spending the summer working at an old-school amusement park. The owner is show-biz veteran Brad Easterbrook, who wants his employees to share his enthusiasm for the world he’s created and not just look on the park’s patrons as rubes to be fleeced and conned.
He stood behind the podium, his enormous hands—they seemed to be nothing but knuckles—clasped before him. His eyes were set deep in pouched sockets.
Age looked at youth, and youth's applause first weakened, then died.
I'm not sure what we expected; posibly a mournful foghorn voice telling us that the Red Death would soon hold sway over all. Then he smiled, and it lit him up like a jukebox. You could almost hear a sigh of relief rustle through the summer hires. I found out later that was the summer Bradley Easterbrook turned ninety-three…
“This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don't already know it will come to know it. Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun…”
You can say that Joyland’s characters come in all shapes and sizes, and include some wonderful middle-aged women—Devin’s no-nonsense landlady for one and the park’s resident psychic for another. These women know and like each other and both worry about Devin in different ways. King, who has written often and lovingly about his mother, has a knack for writing such characters, bringing them to vivid life in ways that celebrate their gender and their age and their wisdom without making them either caricatures or saints.
When I reached the palm-reading concession, Madame Fortuna planted herself in my path. Except that's not quite right, because she was only Fortuna between May fifteenth and Labor Day. During those sixteen weeks, she dressed in long skirts, gauzy, layered blouses, and shawls decorated with various cabalistic symbols. Gold hoops hung down from her ears, so heavy they dragged the lobes down, and she talked in a thick Romany accent that made her sound like a character from a 1930s fright-flick, the kind featuring mist-shrouded castles and howling wolves.
During the rest of the year she was a childless widow from Brooklyn who collected Hummel figurines and liked movies (especially the weepy-ass kind where some chick gets cancer and dies beautifully). Today she was smartly put together in a black pantsuit and low heels…The Love Story fan from Brooklyn and Fortuna the Seer only came together in one respect: both fancied themselves psychic.
“There is a shadow over you, young man,” she announced.
Are you talking to the King fans who like the books in which King mixes crime with his horror as in The Dead Zone? Those fans are in luck, because Joyland deftly straddles the genres while wrapping the narrative around a story of friendship and kinship and coming of age. The horror has a slow build that begins with the reflexive horror Devin feels when he hears the story of a murder that occurred inside one of the park’s most popular rides. The dread caused by the unsolved murder and the subsequent haunting floats like a marine layer over the landscape of the story, sending out cold tendrils of suspicion that insinuate themselves into the sunlight as Devin and his friends investigate the crime.
A relationship between a mother and her child is also a big part of the story here, so for King fans who enjoy ghost stories intertwined with family relationships (like the novelist’s Bag of Bones, The Shining, and Duma Key), a Joyland subplot involving Dev’s neighbors Annie Ross and her son Mike will prove especially satisfying. There are some lovely quiet moments between Devin and Mike, and the joyous scene of them flying a kite together is truly emotional.
In fact, King’s most loyal readers know that the novelist is a genius—yes, it’s okay to use the G-word around them—at wringing emotion from situations and characters. Did they cry when the mouse was killed in The Green Mile? King’s ability to elicit emotion is on full display here, and there are several scenes in Joyland that will pluck those same heartstrings.
Also on display in Joyland is King’s virtuosity at creating a range of characters thrown together by circumstance—as in The Stand and Under the Dome (a miniseries coming from CBS next month). King may be a wealthy man now but he hasn’t forgotten his hardscrabble roots and his depiction of Dev’s economies—he walks to work to save bus money—have the ring of reality to them. He also has a loathing for bullies and the way they interact with otherwise peaceful groups of people and his way of dealing with the bullies in this book is particularly satisfying and completely King-esque. (Kingian?)
So if a reader asks, “Is this a Stephen King book?” the answer is “yes,” no matter what kind of Stephen King fan that reader might be. It’s not possible for one writer to be all things to all readers, but for all the reasons readers love his books, Joyland delivers on their expectations.
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Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles in an apartment where her TBR pile has its own bookcase. She writes dark fiction but has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, heroic fantasy, and horror novels where only bad people get killed. She is the editor of the upcoming anthology Nightfalls.