Horror master loses the plot
This review includes spoilers - actually it comprises only spoilers.
Stephen King's Joyland appears to be a pulp crime novel. Its wonderfully lurid cover, the trademark of the Hard Case Crime series, depicts the red-headed Erin Cook in a low-cut green mini, clutching a camera, staring out at some terrifying threat.
There is nothing hard-boiled about Joyland.
The story is told by Devin Jones, who looks back on a monumental summer in his past.
As a college student - broken-hearted after being dumped by his first great love - Devin finds work in a carnival in a small coastal Carolina town. His healing begins as he becomes integrated into the ludic "carny" community. Still hurting, he opts to continue working through the winter on the maintenance of the ghostly, deserted park.
The novel succeeds to a degree as a coming-of-age story. The life of the carnival, the patois of the "carnies" ("the Talk") and the friendship between Devin and fellow students Erin and Tom are memorably sketched. Most compelling are those occasions when Devin is dressed as "the Happy Hound", in a cripplingly hot suit, entertaining children by dancing the Hokey Pokey.
During the winter, Devin befriends Mike, a boy confined to a wheelchair and dying of muscular dystrophy. His sharp-shooter mother is understandably over-protective. Mike wants nothing more than to visit the carnival before he dies.
Devin and the other carnies organise for the park to be opened for him. They all put on a good show in one of the most cloying scenes in contemporary fiction.
Were King to have limited himself to this story, the novel might have succeeded. But he is afflicted by generic incontinence. Perhaps to fulfil the brief of the Hard Case series, a pointless whodunit is woven into the plot. Not satisfied to introduce this rather discrepant crime plot, King also makes a ghost of one victim - the obligatory girl in a blue dress, with arms outstretched, who haunts the house of horrors.
The murderer is Lane Hardy, the worldly but seemingly kind carny who initiates Devin into the life of the park and teaches him to operate the Carolina Spin. There is no point in hiding this fact. The crime plot is so under-cooked that one truly doesn't care who cut the little girl's throat, and apparently those of other girls and women. There is no sense of whydunit, so whodunit doesn't matter.
The routine claim in reviews of King's novels is that he is a master storyteller. To criticise his writing seems intellectually precious; to fly in the face of mass approbation makes one no more than a poseur. After all, some of the early works, most notably The Shining, are excellent, and two of his short stories have been made into significant films, Stand by Me (from the story The Body) and The Shawshank Redemption.
But King's writing is now flabby. He has become unforgivably quaint. As Mike is carried from his wheelchair to the Ferris wheel, and when he soars aloft - like the kite Devin helps him to get airborne - we know we are in the presence of a horrible film-in-the-making.
Joyland is little more than sentimental indulgence, poor crime writing and a gratuitous sortie into the supernatural.
In On Writing, King writes of the many publishers' rejections he received when he first began writing. On the evidence of his newest novel, a few more might help him along.
Titlestad is an Associate Professor of English at the University of the Witwatersrand. 'Joyland', published by Hard Case Crime, is available from Exclusive Books, R134