Is Stephen King going soft in his old age? On the evidence of his latest offering, perhaps he is, argues Stephen McGinty
by Stephen King
Titan Books, 285pp, £7.99
The only conversation Stanley Kubrick had with Stephen King when he adapted his novel into the film, The Shining, centred around the inherent hopefulness of ghosts.
The only conversation Stanley Kubrick had with Stephen King when he adapted his novel into the film, The Shining, centred around the inherent hopefulness of ghosts. Kubrick phoned, as he was wont to do, early in the morning. King was still shaving, so the discussion about the possibility of life after death was conducted while his face was half covered in shaving foam. Kubrick argued that for ghosts to exist there had to be life after death and that this was a positive notion and preferable to the horror of the void, but King countered that if someone had died in great pain or while insane, ghosts might not be so benign. Kubrick, unconvinced, wasn’t long in hanging up.
Yet that conversation echoes down through King’s work in which, so often, ghosts are far from malevolent but simply the restless spirits of the unhappy dead. It is in the hearts of the living where the true horror lies and so it is with his latest novel, Joyland, a fabulously floppy, roll-it-up-and-stick-it-in-your-back-pocket paperback from the Hard Case Crime series. As an author who pioneered the online serial novel, The Plant (unfinished, after not enough people paid their $1 honour fee) King appears to have repented and, in a bid to preserve the noble paperback has insisted that Joyland is only released in physical form. Well, for now.
The novel is a coming of age tale, set in the early 1970s and following Devin Jones, a 21-year-old who spends his summer nursing a broken heart and working at the Joyland amusement park in North Carolina. His girlfriend has just posted a “Dear John” letter and he’s living in a boarding house by the beach and spending his days capering about in a furry costume, working the rides and learning the “carny lingo”. A few years ago a young girl had her throat slit on the ghost ride and her body dumped in the dark by the tracks. The case and the missing culprit begins to fascinate Jones as he suspects one of the old hands of doing the deed.
On the beach one day he meets a young boy, born “in sin” to the daughter of a TV evangelist who blames his fatal illness on her immorality. Jones offers to organise a private tour of Joyland during the off-season and the boy’s strange sixth sense promises to illuminate the darkness at the heart of the ghost ride.
So where does Joyland fit into King’s ouvre? If published in the 1980s it would have been in one of his collections of novellas and have the emotional feel of The Shawshank Redemption and The Body from Different Seasons. Instead, at times, I felt it was getting too sentimental, what with the kindly landlady and Carny folk looking out for a young lad with a broken heart. Then in the last 80 pages, it grips you not by the pace of the plot but in matters of the heart and thoughts about life. At 65, King has a way of writing about life that feels genuine, accurate and unforced. No-one in Joyland gets a free pass: everyone collects their portion of misery and pain along the way but there is an honesty that is genuinely touching.
Here’s Jones, the narrator, writing from the present: “All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue – when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day – I got back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.”
Is it a hard-boiled crime novel? No. I might have thought King had softened too much, but a couple of years ago he published “A Good Marriage” in the collection, Full Dark, No Stars, one of the most disturbing stories of his career and so when he wants, there is still plenty left in the tank. But, as for Joyland, King’s a one-minute egg. A softy. You won’t gag in horror, or shriek in terror, but come the last few pages, you might just shed a tear.