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Off the Shelves: Overdue introduction to Stephen King’s world

POSTED: August 25, 2013 1:00 a.m.

I’m about to admit a terrible truth, one that will make many bibliophiles shake their heads and ponder what rock I have been living under: I have never read a Stephen King book until now.

I can’t say why I never have. He writes in genres I enjoy, and not all of his novels are the massive leviathans that “Under the Dome” or “The Dark Tower” series novels are. His recent paperback crime novel, “Joyland,” King could have sneezed out in one sitting at a brief 280 pages.

While I cannot access if this book is a good example of the type of work King typically produces — since it’s the only one I have read — it is interesting to see how the author presents inarguably well-worn horror motifs and recycles specific character types that, in less skillful hands, may come across as paper doll cut-outs from countless other dramas.

The “Joyland” of the novel’s title is a rickety-old theme park in North Carolina, where college student Devin Jones works during the summer of 1973. After discovering his long-distance girlfriend has left him, Devin decides to stay at Joyland and try to sort out his life.

But behind the light-hearted whimsy of Joyland, its carny-run amusement park rides and Wiggle-Waggle village where Devin plays Joyland’s mascot to entertain children, an enigmatic dark side exists. The lady who plays the fortune-teller may be more than some theatrical act. The haunted house may possess the spirit of a young woman who was murdered inside it years earlier. And someone who works at Joyland may have a shadier past than anyone knows, leaving Devin to find himself tangled in a frightening, deadly ordeal.

Thankfully, this is not just a run-of-the-mill crime thriller. It is a reflective coming-of-age story for Devin, focusing more on his relationships than the paranormal-induced gore most people associate with King.

Lots of characters come and go in the story. Plus, the novel often meanders away from the plot and takes a while to get back on track. But the bonds Devin forms, particularly with a mother and her dying son, are well-written and edge away from the sort of sappiness that are easy pitfalls for other writers.

This is not a fast-paced novel. It takes its time getting to the central mystery about the haunted house and the legacy of the infamous murder. Yet, the story is steadfastly engaging and, at times, touching. King gives as much care and thought to this novel as any of his more highly publicized literature. And his writing seamlessly combines tinges of natural humor, subtle drama and just the right amount of tension for suspense.

While Joyland is not a revolutionary novel in King’s collection — other reviewers point out the common “Stephen King themes” within — it has encouraged me to add more of King’s titles to my reading list.

And any author who inspires further reading proves he can do what he does well.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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