Saturday, September 7, 2013

STILL SCARY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS? Stephen King and Amityville


If Stephen King’s Joyland is an example of the great horror writer’s current writing style, I’m not sure I want to read any more of his novels. Not that I mean to insult this book, which I suspect will be entertaining for his vast audience and, truthfully, isn’t all that bad. It’s just that he takes his sweet time about getting us where we want to go.

It’s not just the poky pace of his narrator, a lovelorn college student named Devlin Jones. The story is about the year Jones took a job at a North Carolina amusement park and found himself at the center of mystery. It’s a good one, too, involving a man who takes young women into dark places and cuts their throats. But before we get to the good stuff, King makes us listen to this kid as he drones on and on about being dumped by his college sweetheart. The effect is akin to sitting at a party with someone who is determined to not have fun. Jones is just that dreary.

The story is set in the 1970s, so there are some references to The Doors and Pink Floyd, and Devlin reads a lot of Tolkien, but any fun 1970s atmosphere is squashed because Devlin is such a whelp. King probably wants us to appreciate how Devlin goes from being a whining wimp to a hero by the tale’s end, but spending so many pages with a wimp is difficult. There’s even a subplot about Devlin befriending a local boy who is confined to a wheelchair but has psychic gifts so common in King’s stories. The kid also has a sexy young mom that eventually has eyes for Devlin. These are themes that King returns to every so often, the young man and the sexy older woman, and the vulnerable child with special powers. In fact, many of the usual King riffs are here, but they’re parceled out in small, barely nourishing dollops.

Those who like the shock and gore of King’s early novels may find this one to be slow going, and even those who have grown used to the milder tone of his recent novels may be disappointed in the light touch he shows here. While Joyland does indeed have all sorts of potentially interesting ideas – there’s a ghost in the funhouse, and a down at the heels amusement park works well as a symbol for something (I kept thinking it symbolized the horror genre in general, old-fashioned scares being usurped by the degenerates with knives who would gradually infest our highways and movie screens) - it feels like King is pacing himself rather than charging at us full-throttle.

King peppers the story with a lot of ersatz carny talk, but the amusement park never feels like a real place. It feels like Wally World in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and King populates the grounds with all of the standard carny types, ie. fortune tellers, aging impresarios, and grouchy lifers who grumble and call Devlin “Kiddo.” Part of Devlin’s job is to wear a dog suit and entertain the children, or “wearing the fur,” as it’s called at Joyland. Dev, though, wants to see the ghosts that everyone keeps talking about.  There could have been an interesting story about a man who wants to see ghosts but never does, but King never quite goes there. King gives us instead a turgid tale of Devlin pining for his lost love, and trying to lose his virginity. King means this to be elegiac, but there’s a Hallmark card mawkishness to King’s writing that defeats his purpose.

Is it an enjoyable reading experience? Maybe, but it feels like a trifle, like going to a great chef’s house and all he gives you is a bag of chips. What is most grating is that Joyland feels “assembled” from other parts of the King canon. For instance, the young narrator who grows up to be a writer and tells this tale of his youth? Check. A description of a face blown apart by a gun blast, done E.C. Comics style? Check. Sick child with a smart mouth and a heart of gold? Check-a-roonie. Some sort of foul weather to make the climax even more dramatic? Check. So on and so on, with plenty of hokey dialog that sounds like it was lifted from a Lifetime network original.

There are a few moments where King gets it right, like Devlin’s solo trek through the haunted funhouse, which almost lifts the story out of the doldrums. I also admire King because he remains a good sport, publishing this one through Hard Case Crime, a small group that has taken on the noble effort of reprinting crime novels from the 1950s and ‘60s. This is King’s second time lending the weight of his name to the Hard Case catalog. Still, I wonder if Hard Case founder Charles Ardai will ever tell King that it’s nice to get his cast offs, but the group would prefer something juicier.
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The Amityville Horror was one of those 1970s phenomenons that bridged the gap between old fashioned haunted house stories and The Shining. Young people in 2013 have no idea how popular it was in its day. It was so popular, in fact, that when The Shining hit movie theaters in 1980, many cynics wrote it off as an Amityville wannabe. That’s impossible to imagine now, but in the 1970s, The Amityville Horror ruled.

It was first a bestselling book by Jay Anson, based on a haunted house case in Amityville N.Y. In 1979 the book was turned into a popular horror movie starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. It spawned nine sequels. But even the worst of the endless rehashes couldn’t tarnish the original story of the Lutz family moving into a house where a mass murder had taken place. Whether you thought it was legit or not, it was an intriguing story.

The Lutzes became celebrities of a sort, appearing on daytime talk shows talking about the spooky things they saw in their house, which included a red-eyed ghost of a small boy, lots of bees, and some sort of fiendish pig monster. And of course, Mr. Lutz became very violent, as the fathers in haunted houses usually do. The book sold like crazy.

Flash forward to this year. My Amityville Horror, a documentary by Eric Walter, focuses on Daniel Lutz, the boy of the saga. Now in his 40s, Lutz recalls his days as a teen in the haunted Amityville house at 112 Ocean Ave. More than that, though, he talks about how much he hated his step-father, and how he hated being known as “the kid from The Amityville Horror.”

Lutz grew to be a craggy, shaven-headed, chain-smoker who talks a lot about himself. He plays electric guitar, strikes a lot of tough poses, and wears a lot of T-shirts with skulls on them. The documentary follows him as he drives around the old neighborhood, has a half-hearted session with a therapist, and kvetches. You keep hoping the evil pig makes an appearance, but no such luck.

You start out wanting to feel sorry for the guy – he maintains that everything we’ve read about the house was true – and you hope to learn what it feels like to survive such a frightening childhood event. But before 10 minutes have passed, Daniel Lutz sounds like some has-been child star complaining about how hard he had it. Seriously, he’s like Danny Bonaduce talking about his days sleeping in his car behind the dumpster at Denny’s. Granted, if you see a flaming pig monster often enough in your youth, you're likely to grow up with some problems. We get that. But it doesn’t make for a compelling documentary. This documentary is slow, and indulgent, and once you’ve seen Lutz noodling on his guitar a few times, you are ready to swear off heavy metal forever.

My Amityville Horror is currently making the rounds on various pay services such as On Demand. Skip it. You’ll find something better on Celebrity Ghost Stories on BIO.

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