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Killer Instincts

Good Labor Day weekend reading: Stephen King's new novel Joyland has spent most of the summer ensconced on the upper reaches of the New York Times Bestseller list, where most of his books enjoy long stays. What's interesting about this one is that it's a paperback original issued as part of Charles Ardai's Hard Case imprint, a series that reissues old crime classics (from James M. Cain to Donald Westlake) as well as original fiction (including that of Ardai himself). Hard Case is also distinguished by it pulpy covers depicting alluring women in various states of undress, many of them by artist Glen Orbik. They're not politically correct, but the resonate with the spirit of their pulp predecessors.

joyland stephen king

King published an early Hard Case title, The Colorado Kid, back in 2005, a deeply haunting book but not one of his classic horror stories. Actually, King's oeuvre has been been notable for its versatility; he's written in a variety of genres, and his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a marvelous primer for students of fiction, broadly construed.

Joyland is a story narrated by the melancholy Devin Jones, a man in his sixties recalling his youth working at the North Carolina amusement part of the title back in the summer and fall of 1973. Struggling to get over the girlfriend who ditched him, he becomes increasingly absorbed by a mysterious murder four years earlier at Joyland, which may have been part of a set of serial killings of young women. He also becomes involved in the lives of a seriously ill boy and his single mother. The two sets of storylines converge as Hurricane Gilda approaches the eastern seaboard. As is true of many King novels stretching back to his now-classic debut novel Carrie (1974), there is a paranormal element to the plot. But King has a light touch and leaves his readers with an interpretive margin, even if he resists easy explanations. He also weighs in occasionally with a meta-narrative comment. "If you read a whodunit or see a mystery movie, you can whistle gaily past whole heaps of corpses, only interested in finding out if it was the butler or the evil stepmother. But these had been real young women. Crows had probably ripped their flesh; maggots would have infested their eyes and squirmed up their noses and into the gray meat of their brains." (He challenges you even as he delivers the goods.)

There's something deeply likable about King's utter immersion in pop culture genres and his ability to entertain readers. There's also something admirable about his sense of loyalty. A writer of his commercial clout could have published this book with any number of major houses. Choosing to do so with a small paperback house is a way of honoring his pulp roots (this is also true of his pioneering efforts with electronic publishing, where he distributed his work in serial form, sometimes for free). In recent years, King has begun to enjoy critical esteem; he was recently the subject, with his family, of an admiring cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Whether or not his work survives his age, we have been lucky to have him.

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jim cullen

Jim Cullen
American History Now

Monday, 16 September 2013