In King's latest book, we find 21-year-old Devin Jones about to embark on the most pivotal period of his young life. It's 1973 and Dev (as he becomes known) is working his way through college. To this end, he takes a summer job at the Joyland amusement park in Heaven's Bay, North Carolina. There he takes to "carny" life like the proverbial duck to water, and the park's inhabitants take to him. Soon Dev becomes a much-valued addition to Joyland's family of oddballs, among them the psychic Rozzie Gold and "ride-jockey" Lane Hardy.
This being Stephen King, there's a sting in the tail and this is it: the park boasts its own ghost, a young woman named Linda Gray who was murdered in the Horror House, her throat slashed by a mystery man. We know it will be only a matter of time before Dev discovers Linda's killer and sets her spirit free to "crossover".
This is a curious book. King seems to have written it with one eyebrow firmly raised. He draws a vivid portrait of amusement park life at a particular time and there is a real sense of nostalgia for a bygone age. King has certainly done his homework. The Joylands of this world are few and far between, replaced by the "mega" theme parks of the likes of Disney (criticised more than once in the book as being "too corporate"). But the characters are pure cornball. Joyland is a world where the men are all virile and women of child-bearing age are all beautiful. Dev is shown to be a thoroughly good egg, saving not just one life, but two; there are even characters called Mike and Annie, a Mrs Robinson figure who allows Dev to finally lose his virginity. Yes, Joyland is as American as apple pie.
While I have seen a number of Stephen King adaptations on the big and small screen, this is the first Stephen King book I have read and I was left feeling more than a little bemused. The story is slow to start, but nonetheless draws you in. There's the obligatory red herring, but then it's left to a secondary character - the red-haired Erin - to do the real sleuthing, playing Nancy Drew to his Hardy boy for no apparent reason. While Dev does eventually guess the identity of the real killer, his realisation comes almost too late - almost. We know that no harm can come to Dev as he is safely narrating the story as an old man, apparently pining for an America that no longer exists.
In 1973, King would have been 26 and it's hard not to draw parallels between the author and Joyland's protagonist. Is this the author's mid-life crisis novel, as he reflects on his waning physical prowess and loss of libido? Or is there a metaphor here about the state of the publishing industry - the loss of independents and the rise of "mega" authors such as Dan Brown, JK Rowling, Stephenie Myers and even EL James? (At one point Erin and Dev speculate that the amusement park killer may have claimed as many as fifty victims - Fifty Shades of Gray, geddit?)
I found the ending strangely anti-climatic and somewhat of a cheat, and I was left curiously unmoved. I could have done without the gratuitous gore at the end and the frequent use of the "c" word. Plus there is something unsettling about the way that King relegates people of colour firmly to the periphery. They appear only as janitors and there's a young black woman whose rape and murder is dismissed as being the work of another killer - for Dev has divined that the funfair murderer's problem is that he "can't get it up".
That said, this is the sort of book to while away a few hours on a long train journey or flight - and then leave in a seat pocket for someone to find.
Joyland is published by Titan Books, £7.99Suggest a correction