It’d probably be an easier task to name all 196 countries in the world than it would be to name all of the many, many novels written by Stephen King. Keep in mind, this is the same guy who invented a pseudonym just so he could write more books a year than his publisher allowed.
Seriously, go ahead, name all of them. Try.
Still, King’s worldwide popularity is not without good reason; I’ve often said that despite his enormous fame, King is actually immensely underrated as a writer. All too often, King is stereotyped as “the scary guy” without due credit given to the enormous variety of content within his work, the depth of his themes, and the wonderful uniqueness of his “old campfire story” prose, which casually jumps in and out of timelines, characters and plot lines with the sort of ease that only a master storyteller can pull off. Yes, King’s horror work is absolutely fantastic—almost any contemporary genre author, myself included, will name King’s horror/suspense work as being a huge inspiration—but to stereotype King as a “horror” author is an injustice to the stunning diversity of his work.
Whether he’s writing about a dark, monolithic nexus of all realities, a virus raging across the country, a haunted pink Kindle or – in his newest novel, Joyland – a touching bildungsroman about a lonely 21-year-old virgin working in an amusement park – Stephen King is nothing if not prolific, and he deserves a hell of a lot more credit for it. To quote Mr. King himself, in an interview conducted by Neil Gaiman:
“I was down here in the supermarket, and this old woman comes around the corner this old woman – obviously one of the kind of women who says whatever is on her brain. She said, ‘I know who you are, you are the horror writer. I don’t read anything that you do, but I respect your right to do it. I just like things more genuine, like that Shawshank Redemption.’
“And I said, ‘I wrote that’.
And she said, ‘No you didn’t’. And she walked off and went on her way.””
– Stephen King
Joyland, King’s latest effort, is an example of how even King’s non-horror work is often marketed as such. Don’t believe the pulpy-looking cover; while it’s a nice painting, it doesn’t accurately depict the feel of the book. Yes, there is a serial killer/rapist. Yes, there is a spooky ghost story to be found. But no, that’s not what Joyland is really about.
On the contrary, Joyland is a small, self-contained memoir-type story, more similar in nature to tales like Hearts in Atlantis. While many fans might overlook Joyland, or simply view it as a brief pit stop on their way to King’s next novel – the highly-anticipated Dr. Sleep – Joyland is a novel well-worth reading. It’s the sort of book that a writer only writes out of a genuine love for the craft.
So, okay. If it’s not about a ghost story, what IS Joyland about?
Joyland is, at its core, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of 1970s North Carolina. Joyland tells the nostalgic tale of Devin Jones, a likeable, everyman UNH student who takes the train down the east coast to work as a carny in the “Joyland” amusement park, while he slowly nurses his first broken heart. As Devin dances around the park in a giant dog costume – humorously referred to in the narrative as “wearing the fur” – Devin works out his demons, makes friends with his fellow carnies, and forms a powerful connection with a disabled boy and his mother – a disabled boy who has more to him than meets the eye.
As a current New Hampshire resident who went to high school down in North Carolina, both settings here ring very true—but that’s no surprise, as King has always been very good at establishing his characters in real places.
Anyway, once Devin begins to settle in, he learns that Joyland’s “Horror House” ride is haunted—haunted by the ghost of a young woman who was murdered during the ride, years ago. The killer has never been found, and Devin makes it his pastime to try to piece together exactly what happened; this casual, almost-playful process gradually becomes far more dangerous, as Devin comes closer and closer to the answers he seeks.
So yes, mixed in here, we have the requisite ghost/serial killer subplot, which moves the narrative along nicely. But this ghost story is largely metaphorical; it primarily exists only to paint the picture of Devin’s coming of age. The novel is written in first person by Devin himself, now middle-aged, as he reminisces on the excitement of his youth, while occasionally pondering on how quickly time can disappear behind a person. In the midst of all this, King manages to sneak in a couple absolutely fantastic quotes, the kind he’s famous for.
“I had it all planned out. Of course, I also had marriage to Wendy Keegan all planned out, and how we’d wait until we were in our thirties to have a couple of kids. When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It’s only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure. By the time you’re sixty, take it from me, you’re fucking lost.”
Don’t get me wrong, Joyland is far from being one of King’s best novels; it simply can’t compare to epic masterpieces like The Dark Tower, The Stand and The Dead Zone. But then again, it’s not trying to. As far as King’s smaller books go, Joyland is wonderfully well put together. It knows what it wants to be – a nostalgic bildungsroman – and it succeeds at being that.
Still, there’s more to it than that. Because even when King does write a smaller story like this one, he can’t help but reach a little bit higher.
Joyland is more than a fictitious memoir; it uses the memoir format to paint a complete, bittersweet picture of a man’s life—his joys and his sorrows, his peaks and his declines. Life isn’t simple; frankly, it’s often an incomprehensible mess, but as human beings we do the best we can, and we often succeed. Good things happen—and so do bad things—but it’s the combination of all these things that make life what it is. Sometimes, good people do get cancer, kids do die young and people are murdered…but at the same time, people do find love, they do overcome their personal demons and sometimes, people really do find happiness in unexpected places.
It’s a simple message, but a good one, and Joyland conveys it effectively.
“That room was where I sat up some nights with my stereo turned down low, playing Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, having those occasional thoughts of suicide. They were sophomoric rather than serious, just the fantasies of an over-imaginative young man with a heart condition…or so I tell myself now, all these years later, but who really knows?
When it comes to the past, EVERYONE writes fiction.”
-Stephen King, Joyland.