If you’ve read this blog in the past, you’ll find that I enjoy me some Stephen King. He’s like a palette-cleanser, an old faithful I turn to between other books—more challenging books or less challenging books or books that are intellectually fulfilling but don’t quite suck me in. King for me is like a favorite record. You don’t listen to it every day, but when you do it’s like rediscovering music.
In the grand scheme of the King ouvre, Joyland is a throwaway. It’s more a novella than a novel, almost a campfire story. It occupies a limited universe, for the most part a single point in time, and lacks even one Maine resident, or rip in the space-time continuum (though there is a psychic kid). The book is short and sweet, and its supernatural elements are understated, almost to a fault. Joyland is the kind of novel I imagine King dreams up at a red light, or on a long elevator ride. “So…what if there was a carny legend about a haunted funhouse…” and then the signal goes green and he drives off. Bam. Novel.
And essentially, that’s what the book is about. Told in flashback by narrator/protagonist Devin Jones—now in his 60s—Joyland is the story of a summer and fall Dev spent working at Joyland, a seaside amusement park in North Carolina. While there, Dev makes friends, mourns a breakup and learns what it means to “wear the fur” on a 100-degree day in August. But throughout his time at Joyland, Dev is also haunted by the story of a girl who was murdered in the Horror House by her boyfriend. Carny lore is that her ghost still appears there to this day.
So Joyland isn’t epic, or even particularly memorable. But this is the thing about Stephen King. Even his red-light/elevator-ride novels are good. Not like Under the Dome good (let alone Shawshank good, or—I’m told—The Stand good) but still enjoyable, absorbing, capable of distracting one from everyday life. Joyland has that melancholy nostalgic feel of all King novels set in the past (70s, in this case) and he is, as always, adept at capturing the infinite feeling of youth. (One might almost suspect Joyland of being something King wrote a long time ago and kept around for a rainy day.) And because the novel is set over such a short period of time, its length and depth feel appropriate. The narrator is, after all, recalling these few months of his life from a time more than forty years in the future.
Inspired by the creepy carnival vibe, I decided to follow up Joyland with Dean Koontz’s The Funhouse, which I vaguely remembered reading years and years ago, like when I was 10 and thought I was hot shit for blowing past Goosebumps and getting into “adult” scary stories (i.e. Goosebumps with sex). Sure enough, the scenes I remembered were primarily from a teenage double-date to the state fair that included making out and smoking a joint. Que escandalo!, I can picture my 10-year-old self thinking, if my 10-year-old self thought in Spanish. Remember, this was about the time I was watching Mr. Mom for the astronaut stripping scene. The thought of being alone with a boy on the Zipper was more than I could even process.
Where Joyland goes light on the horror and heavy on the inimitably King “spooky coming-of-age” thing, The Funhouse (published in 1980) is much more, well, gross. There are no ghosts in the novel, just a murderous carnival barker (and funhouse proprietor) named Conrad Straker, who has waited years to exact revenge on his ex-wife, an uber-Christian alcoholic who uses liquor and religion to drown out guilt from a crime she committed decades ago, back when she was still married to Conrad.
It’s been years since I read Koontz with any consistency, but I’ve always thought of him as Stephen King Lite. Which isn’t to say that his books are any less enjoyable, just that with Koontz you feel that you’re still in the same world as the real one, albeit with a preponderance of ghosts and serial killers. By contrast, Stephen King novels feel like they’re set in King World, where everyone is from Maine and the space-time continuum is dubious. A place where right and wrong do battle daily, in the form of clairvoyant little boys and flawed but well-meaning writers, malevolent ghosts and various residents of other dimensions. King World makes it okay that his books blend together — that they repeat themes and recycle premises and in some cases even overlap. Because SK’s books are all essentially asking the same thing, all exploring the same moral debates that lie at the heart of King World: What would happen, and who would we become, if _____? And when you’re lost in King World, the end of the question almost stops mattering.
AUTHOR: Stephen King
PAGES: 288 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: I mean…
SORTA LIKE: The Funhouse meets The Body (Stand by Me)
FIRST LINE: “I had a car, but on most days in the fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay.”