Dressed in a retro/classic pulp cover, Joyland offers a tale that’s far beyond Stephen King’s usual horror tropes and terrorizing monsters. Rather, Joyland marks a departure (and a satisfying one) somewhat similar to King’s other books such as Hearts in Atlantis or Stand by Me; highly recommended reads as well. That’s not to say Joyland is completely absent of these elements, they just aren’t the centerpiece in a story that weaves a coming-of-age narrative of love and heartbreak with mystery. I know, it seems I’ve already made my concluding comments regarding Joyland within the first paragraph, but I do so to point out, as I did in my opening line, to not let the book’s cover define the story within its’ pages.
As the cover’s subtext asks its’ readers, “Who dares enters the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR”, the context suggests a terrifying read filled with horror clichés and cheesy one-liners. But on the contrary, Joyland is one man’s personal journey driven by heartbreak in the wake of his adult years to come. Devin Jones, the story’s protagonist, is well within his 60’s as he narrates the Summer of 1973, when the twenty-one year old “Jonesy” picks up work at an amusement park (Joyland) in Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina in order to help cope with a recent breakup.
During his four month tenure as a Joyland employee, Devin is told by the park’s psychic fortuneteller, Madam Fortuna, that the local haunted house exhibit, Funhouse of Fear, is haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray; the victim of a murder whose killer is still on the loose. Throughout the daily workings in Joyland, Devon comes to meet 10-year old Mike Ross; whose physical impairments (cause by muscular dystrophy, AKA MD) lead to borrowed time on Earth. His mother, Annie Ross, is not only faced with the mortally of her only child, but the realization to accept that any fond experiences with her son could be their last one together. Mike, as it’s revealed rather quickly, displays the gift of clairvoyance; somewhat similar to the “shine” in various Stephen King novels. This is where the connection to Mike and Linda Gray at Funhouse of Fear come together.
There is an emotional investment that I found to be quite sincere when it came to the characters in Joyland. Devin Jones’ heartbreak leads him on a personal journey of self discovery, where through his newfound friendships and unique experiences leads him to overcome many of the personal demons that we can relate to. I found myself relating to Devin’s own experiences and feelings through my personal heartbreaks and self loathing in my youth; character trope or not, Devin Jones is a likable protagonist. Stephen King’s ability to deliver an emotional narrative of a broken, vulnerable young Devin, was heartfelt, and empathizing didn’t feel like a chore. Devin’s friendships with Erin and Tom play an essential role in Joyland and, although not a centerpiece in the novel, does drive the narrative forward as it helps Devin mature as a young adult; as it is also a character driven story.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Joyland was King’s attention to detail within the unique world of the amusement park community. Devin establishes close friendships and rapport with the amusement park staff, picking up peculiar habits, lingo, and surprising talent to entertain children as the park’s mascot, Howie the Happy Hound.
Although the supernatural and thriller elements lie below the surface of Joyland, ultimately, this is a novel of growth and moving beyond love and loss; not ignoring it. The heartbreaks and struggles are parallel to the many of our very own. Joyland is much more thoughtful and profound than its’ cover leads it to believe and Stephen King has once again given us a worthwhile read set outside the boundaries of terror; even in the Funhouse of Fear. Thanks for reading.
Originally Posted: September 9th, 2018
Daniel Kraus’s Rotters is an unconventional morbid tale of life told through the obsession of death. It’s an ambitious take on a coming-of-age narrative that’s both rough on the edges and yet full of heart. Kraus takes his readers on a journey of the macabre in search of the beauty in life, which ironically is found beneath the gravestones, six feet within the Earth. It’s the artistry of grave robbing that teaches the book’s protagonist, Joey Crouch, that the things most people value end up staying behind for the living to claim. Rotters reminds us of our mortality and how we are continually rotting away until our bodies are finally laid to rest. Rotters is a complex story of strained family relationships, friends, love, heartbreak, and most importantly, it questions our place in this world. Daniel Kraus printed Rotters in 2012 and is comprised of roughly 460 pages; the book was published by Ember, a division of Random House Inc.
According to Daniel Kraus’s official website, the synopsis for Rotters is as follows,
“Grave robbing. What kind of monster would do such a thing? It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci did it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and the resurrection men of nineteenth-century Scotland practically made it an art. But none of this matters to Joey Crouch, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student living in Chicago with his single mom. For the most part, Joey’s life is about playing the trumpet and avoiding the daily humiliations of high school. Everything changes when Joey’s mother dies in a tragic accident and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with the father he has never known, a strange, solitary man with unimaginable secrets. At first, Joey’s father wants nothing to do with him, but once father and son come to terms with each other, Joey’s life takes a turn both macabre and exhilarating.”
Given Daniel Kraus’s history with the horror genre, with such titles including The Monster Variation (2009) and following Rotters with Scowler (2014) and The Shape of Water (2108), it comes to no surprise that Kraus would include horror elements to provide Rotters the dark undertones needed to effectively tell a chilling story. Joey Crouch is a character that many of us readers can relate to, with the exception of his particular circumstances of grave robbing. He’s a teenager struggling to fit in at a new school, constantly trying to figure out his identity and place in this world, smart, and of course, falls prey to the relentless heartache of unrequited love. Joey’s character in Rotters takes several shifts throughout the novel, which I found not only refreshing, but very engaging; I’d understand and support his decisions, then I’d be upset with his choices and where they’d lead him. The relationship between Joey and his father, Ken Harnett, takes a snail’s pace of development within the first half of the novel. In fact, the first half of Rotters focuses primarily on Joey’s relationship with Ken as well as his social status as the inconspicuous “freak” teenager in high school. It’s not until the second half of Rotters that we begin to notice a change of pace and direction of our central characters, as well as a developing conflict.
Kraus’s writing is exceptionally impressive as his ability to describe characters and their environments brings about the dark atmospheric tone that makes Rotters such a unique story. Kraus’s “voice” takes control of every scenario as his narrative, as clear as glass, allows readers to peer inside the story with an imagination armed with distinguishable style. Rotters is a novel that challenges readers to reflect on our own mortality as well as the decisions that either place value in the things that matter versus the things that don’t. Daniel Kraus has managed to write a novel that reflects the literary voices of the past, as Rotters borrows elements from the macabre such as the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, the obsession with the dead as with Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the haunting atmosphere told in eerie detail just as M.R. James ghost stories. You may see Rotters listed as “Young Adult Fiction”, but don’t let that stop you from giving Kraus’s novel a chance. It’s a dark flirtation with death and how the coming-of-age of protagonist Joey Crouch provides insight on the living, through the dead. If you can muster the courage to read through the first half of the novel’s slow development, you’ll be in for a stellar second half. Thanks for reading.
Rotters trailer: https://youtu.be/1mI1WcebLkk
Kraus official site: http://www.danielkraus.com/books/rotters/