Joyland: Romping With Death
A nifty little bugger, is Stephen King. One of those authors who eludes categorisation despite a vast output, one who manages to combine the stock elements of thriller and the supernatural with the ordinary, undulating ebb and flow of human life. I’ll admit I was surprised when Joyland landed on our desks at Erotic Towers, despite the dubious title and tagline: ‘Who dares enter the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR?’ A very real fear that King had dabbed his hand at EL James-esque BDSM was soon replaced by a thought: what if, actually, all King’s major works have tickled the surface of our current obsession with sexual ‘deviance’? Carrie’s literal ‘red room of pain’, for instance, or the orgiastic lock-in of The Shining. Heeeeeeere’s Johnny! shouts Jack Nicholson, whacking into the bathroom for a bit of suttin suttin, as Wendy faints dead away in pleasure. Maybe not. There’s always been an underlying sexuality to his books, however: more often than not sex is used to disturb, to captivate, to somehow normalise what we’d regard as immoral or depraved. Who can forget the full-frontal nudity of Room 237, when the seemingly erotic literally decays before our eyes, or the becostumed teddy bears snaffling around between each others’ legs? The Stand (1978) features an anal sex scene which bypasses your usual tackle and impedimenta and opts instead for a loaded gun. King writes sex, but he doesn’t write erotica.
Hats off to him, though: this is his sixty-second novel, not counting non-fiction, comics and poems, and on the whole it’s a good yarn. Devin Jones, a non-descript but decent chap arrives to take up a job at the eponymous fairground, nursing a broken heart and keen for distraction. Devin soon learns about the death of a young woman on the Horror House ride four years ago, and becomes embroiled in the search for her killer. Running parallel to this are encounters with a terminally-sick child who possesses second sight and will help Devin solve the mystery.
The ‘carny’ setting will always lend itself well to paranormal activity: the prevalence of palm-readers and mirror-halls, wax-museums and death-defying roller-coasters. Fairgrounds are places we go to have fun, but they’re also savannahs of unreality where everything is bright and garish. King does well to authenticate Joyland for the reader, which in itself becomes the novel’s focal character. And the murder story’s not bad, either: you want to discover whodunit, follow the clues and take the leads: you can always rely on King to do this for you.
But! There are several problems. The first is pacing which, to use an Americanism that the novel deserves, is whack. Something as brilliantly executed as the aforementioned, earlier works might suggest that King is losing his touch. We’re treated to pages-long descriptions of corndogs, peppered with clunky dialogue, waiting for the next plot turn which never arrives, or arrives too late. Suspense is built up and then wasted, supplanted instead by gnomic statements about life from the young and then reflective elderly narrator. Lines such as ‘the powers that be have a way have a way of outlawing many beautiful things made by ordinary people. I don’t know why that should be, I only know it is’ had me variously yawning and reaching for a bucket. These mournful, plaintive whinges – ‘we rarely get what we imagine in this world’ – are unnecessary, and detract from the punch Joyland might otherwise have had. Let’s have less snarfing on about ex-girlfriends, or fannying about relaying the exact ingredients of a milkshake, and more of the old stuff. The old stuff always works, Steve.
Stephen King, Joyland, published by Titan Books, paperback, 288 pp, ISBN 978-1781162644, RRP £7.99