IF YOU’RE A SNOB, you might as well stop reading now.
The cover of the paperback features a woman in a tight green dress, décolletage bursting, shapely legs on display, hair a flaming red, mouth wide open with alarm. “Who dares enter the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR?” asks the tagline, written in the nostalgic font of carnival posters and pulp novels of yore. On the back, in the same garish lettering: “Life is not always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.” Stephen King, the author of this cliché-bedecked book, is considered by many to be the master of the American horror genre, having brought us The Shining, Cujo, Carrie, The Dead Zone, and countless chilling short stories. He is also the author of the classic writing memoir On Writing, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and, most recently, the time machine/historical novel 11/22/63, all of which have a speculative quality to them that alters what one might think of as King’s “brand” considerably.
King belongs to an expansive tribe of writers who produce both “serious literature,” the kind you might encounter in a college classroom, and also what some might call “light reading,” “genre work,” or even, less euphemistically, “trash.” This group includes writers as different as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene. In addition to The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald wrote magazine stories and screenplays for financial survival. Greene produced wonderful “entertainments” such as Our Man in Havana and This Gun for Hire alongside more archetypally meaty works such as The End of the Affair or The Power and The Glory. Still another set of these double agents might include John Le Carre, whose spy novels are often recognized for their literary quality, or Henning Mankell, who has published numerous “serious” novels alongside his Wallander series of mysteries, garnering acclaim for both. And then, in still another set of unclassifiables, there are those writers who work steadily in one genre but acquire wide respect because their writing has qualities which transcend preconceived notions about the genre they work in: Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Charles Portis. What do we do with these writers? Some readers sit uncomfortably with them because the word “genre” hangs over their heads, shadowing them like a gray cloud.
Stephen King may be one of horror’s most long-respected practitioners, but he himself doesn’t sit with the genre label quietly. When he received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award from the National Book Foundation in 2003, King expressed resentment at the lack of recognition his fellow genre authors receive:
Honoring me is a step in a different direction, a fruitful one, I think. I’m asking you, almost begging you, not to go back to the old way of doing things. There’s a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. I believe the time comes when you must be inclusive rather than exclusive.
King’s point is a valid one: literary skill should be recognized regardless of one’s opinion of its genre, as difficult as it might sometimes be to transcend that opinion.
Joyland is as genre-foiling as its author. Devin Jones has just finished his junior year in college, and he takes a job at a North Carolina seaside amusement park called Joyland. Shortly before he starts the job, his girlfriend leaves him, throwing him into a pitch of crisis, both romantic and existential: Will he find new love? Will he ever love again? What will he do with the rest of his life? Devin asks himself all of these questions, fairly explicitly. As Devin hangs on at the park, he discovers it has a dark history. Years ago, a girl was murdered inside the funhouse, and since then, it’s said, her ghost haunts the spot. Additionally, one of Devin’s fellow boarders at a local rooming house, with whom he’s become friendly, does some detective work and finds that the murder of long ago was one of several similar murders, and the killer may still be on the loose. So we have a ghost, a fun house, and a serial killer: Is this a horror story? A crime novel? A mystery? Or some combination of all three?
If Joyland were just a dry (dare I say joyless) mishmash of clichés (a haunted funhouse? Surely you jest, Mr. King), one would be justified in dismissing it as a quirky side note in a writer’s lengthy career. But, fortunately, King packs other dimensions into the book’s short length, and these dimensions make all the difference. The largest of these extras is the language. King’s characters speak a tongue that is part carnie patois, part King-invention, for which mixture he offers the following defense in his afterword: “Folks, that’s why they call it fiction.” (A strong argument, when you think about it.) King uses the lingo of Joyland liberally: a “fump” is a perpetual complainer, a “conie” is a rubicund, naïve visitor, a “point” is a pretty young woman, a “dommiker” is a bathroom, and so on. And then there are the rides themselves: the Carolina Spin, the Moon Rocket. You can almost sense, as you read, King’s pleasure in naming these things –– and why shouldn’t he enjoy it? There is an almost delirious pleasure in reading the words, savoring them, and, after a certain point, getting used to them. As you read the dialogue, the book becomes less a story about a summer’s mystery than a tale of entry into another, coexisting world, one with its own rules, codes, and language.
King strengthens his storyline with a rich cast of supporting characters. There’s Erin, an ambitious, smart young woman with whom Devin walks a subtle line between friendship and attraction, and Tom, an all-American boy rattled and disturbed by what he ends up witnessing in the funhouse. In a mansion owned by a famous televangelist lives a divorced beachgoer (with whom Devin has a near-romance) and her dying son; the son is psychic but unpredictable enough, and genuinely suffering enough, that you forgive him his mildly corny insights. Many of King’s supporting characters could’ve walked out of a Chandler novel: consider Rozzie Gold from Brooklyn, who plays the fair’s perceptive fortuneteller. Or Mrs. Shoplaw, Devin’s landlady, who, in her somewhat dissipated form, is the doubleness of the fair personified, with its constant wavering between good cheer and darkness. In addition to the vibrant cast, King sprinkles his narrative with entertaining episodes. There are the odd rituals that Devin has to do, such as “Wearing the Fur,” which has a somewhat primordial significance to the Joyland employees, despite the fact that it amounts to little more than dancing around in a huge dog suit.
Joyland is quick reading, and its pleasures are simple ones. And yet it’s just complicated enough to force us to question the distinction between high and low literature. The reason we continue reading Joyland, as with all mysteries, suspense novels, thrillers, or horror novels, is to find out what happens next: who murdered the girl in the funhouse? Is there another murder on the horizon? Just because these questions appeal to a broad spate of readers, are we to judge these books differently? The book has been released in paperback, and will eventually come out in a limited hardcover edition — a move meant to hearken back to the days of dime store novels. This move is also designed to make readers more conscious of what it means to buy a paperback rather than a hardcover, and especially this brand of paperback: what they want out of it, what level of satisfaction they think it can give them, and, ultimately, what the experience is worth. In this case, the splashy and aggressively sexy packaging is the tip of the iceberg. Almost.