Stephen King, Joyland and the Lure of Pulp

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joylandA haunted carnival funhouse gives a supernatural spin to events in Thriller Award–winner King’s period murder mystery with a heart. In the summer of 1973, 21-year-old college student Devin Jones takes a job at Joyland, a North Carolina amusement park. Almost immediately, a boardwalk fortune-teller warns that Devin has “a shadow” over him, and that his destiny is intertwined with that of terminally ill Mike Ross, a 10-year-old boy who has “the sight.” – from the Publishers Weekly review of Stephen King’s “Joyland” (June 2013 release)

Anyone Stephen King’s age or older has been impacted by pulp fiction whether we’ve read any of it or not. Pulp, referring to the cheap paper, covered a lot of genres from westerns to mysteries to sports to gangsters. It was cheaply produced and, so some people say, never could have seen the light of day in the up-scale “slicks” or “glossies”—the magazines and books printed on better paper.

The cover art, which was usually suggestive, garish, colorful, and over the top, meant that readers typically wouldn’t let their parents, teachers, office workers, pastors, and spouses see the books. In terms of magazines, most pulps died out during the 1950s as the sixty-year-old publishing approach began to run its course. Today, the book covers that were once considered scandalous are now considered “camp” and/or treasures of a bygone era that began with Argosy Magazine and included authors H. Rider Haggard,  Edgar Rice Burroughs and Talbot Mundy.

“Undeniable…charm [and] aching nostalgia…[JOYLAND] reads like a heartfelt memoir and might be King’s gentlest book, a canny channeling of the inner peace one can find within outer tumult.” – Booklist

The cover of Stephen King’s upcoming novel Joyland screams PULP. Published by Hard Case Crime, the look of the book is intentional as its author takes a nostalgia trip back to his roots and the fiction he grew up reading. The publisher is a friend of pulp:

Hard Case Crime brings you the best in hardboiled crime fiction, ranging from lost noir masterpieces to new novels by today’s most powerful writers, featuring stunning original cover art in the grand pulp style.

Though King embraced e-books early on, Joyland will be available in paperback only. That’s made bookstores happy and caused other people to wonder what King is up to when he says, “I have no plans for a digital version. Maybe at some point, but in the meantime, let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one.”

Pulp seems to be less pulpy on a Kindle or a Nook. Perhaps that, and the nostalgia of those pulpy old days is sufficient rationale for the paperback-only release. Personally, I would like to see some other major writers delay the release of the digital versions of their books. Only the prosperous could afford to do that, to go against the tide that often washes e-books up on shore before the paperback and hardcover releases.

Some years ago, literary agent Mort Janklow said of King, “That’s a fellow sitting up in Maine having fun, but it’s not a way to run a business.”

No, it probably isn’t. But I like it. I like it even on a day when I’m talking to the regional library system about including e-book editions of my novels on their e-lending lists. I like it because it’s fun. And yes, I’ll buy a copy at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore because that’s part of what pulp fiction is all about, walking in, making sure Mom, Dad or the school teacher aren’t around, and grabbing a copy of the latest hardboiled story off the spinning rack of books.

I remember the thrill of all that and I’ll enjoy going back in time to renew my memories. Unlike the old days, this book has glowing reviews from mainstream reviewers. I almost wish it didn’t.

–Malcolm

10 responses

  1. “Some years ago, literary agent Mort Janklow said of King, ‘That’s a fellow sitting up in Maine having fun, but it’s not a way to run a business.’” And yet, King seems to be doing just fine. :-)

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  4. Back in the late ’50’s early ’60s my father traveled all over for his job and he always bought a pulp science fiction book to read on the train and later, the plane. He’d bring them home and lay them like traps on the coffee table. Half naked women with impossible cleavages being threatened by buff aliens or scaly monsters. They were irresistible to a curious 8 to 12-year-old. That’s what hooked me on science fiction and fantasy–even tho there were seldom any half naked women in the actual story–and I’ve been reading it (and writing it) ever since.

    • My father read inexpensive paperbacks when he traveled as well. He tended to find authors in genres he liked and then relied on them to always tell a good story. That way, he didn’t have to spend a lot of time picking out each new book at a busy newsstand.

  5. I’m looking forward to this book. I still have a hard time reading books on screen, so I won’t complain about a paperback release!