In 2011, I wrote a short little book called Chart of Darkness, which traced Stephen King’s career by delving into his long and record-breaking career on the New York Times Bestseller Lists. It was a fascinating book to research and write, in part because it’s a way to quantify popularity, and in part because charts, especially ones involving pop culture, are just kind of fun. King first made a splash on the paperback chart in 1976 when ’Salem’s Lot, his second novel, hit #1. In an article titled “Not Guilty,” published October 24, 1976 in the New York Times, King defends his right to having the #1 bestselling paperback in the country, arguing that popularity does not necessarily equal the lowest common denominator. “Accessibility,” he states, “cannot stand alone… the honest intent to do as well as possible — that has to stand at the base of any writing career.”
In 1977, King had his first hardcover bestseller with The Dead Zone, and there the superlatives begin. To date, King has published thirty-three books that have hit #1 on the bestseller chart – more than any other author in history. He has had #1 books in five decades, a feat accomplished by no other author, ever. In 1996, he became the second author to ever hit #1 and #2 on the same chart (the first was Robert James Waller, riding the wave of singular popularity that buoyed his The Bridges of Madison County). Long before Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling shot to #1 when the public discovered it was actually written by J.K. Rowling, Stephen King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, had similar success with Thinner. Over on the paperback side, King made history in September of 1996 when all six volumes of The Green Mile appeared on the paperback chart at once. No author, before or since, has managed six titles on one chart at once.
As if the astounding chart performance of The Green Mile exhausted the paperback list, Stephen King’s performance on that chart has dropped precipitously in its wake. In the years since, King’s hardcovers have topped their chart nearly as regularly as he’s released them, but until very recently, King hadn’t had a paperback book hit the #1 spot since 2003 – and that was for the movie tie-in edition of Dreamcatcher, which stalled at #2 on its first chart run over a year prior. Oh, there’ve been close calls. In 2002, Black House (written with Peter Straub) went to #2 in its second week on the chart, and Cell followed suit in 2007; Everything’s Eventual had to contend itself with #3. All others fared poorer, and while nearly every King paperback hit the top ten (except for the Dark Tower books, which did better in hardcover in recent years and virtually vanished from the paperback charts), none have achieved the peak position … until now.
When Joyland entered the charts on June 23rd, it looked like business as usual, sliding in at #2 just below the newest Sylvia Day Crossfire novel, also in its first week. The following week, it took over the top slot, becoming Stephen King’s first #1 paperback in over a decade. It was also a first for publisher Hard Case Crime, the fantastic imprint that brings back the best noir and crime novels from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, and publishes new work written in the classic style. The publisher’s biggest previous chart success was with King’s inaugural Hard Case Crime novel, The Colorado Kid, which debuted at #5 in 2005 and quickly slipped off the charts. There are a lot of reasons for The Colorado Kid’s relatively minor showing on the charts: it was published very quietly the year after King’s huge double-shot of Dark Tower novels, it was a mass-market paperback original (which, at the time, was the only way Hard Case Crime published novels), and, most damningly, a lot of people hated the ending. Along with a lot of King’s major work at the time – the Dark Tower series, From a Buick 8, and Cell among them – The Colorado Kid ended ambiguously, without any firm resolutions. That the novel was intended as sort of a meta-commentary on the nature of unsolved mysteries was lost on most readers.
Joyland, on the other hand, features a very definite ending – concrete and elegiac and remarkably moving. It’s also one of King’s most effortless tales, a coming-of-age story set in an appropriately romanticized bygone era, a formula that has worked for King in It, Christine, “The Body,” and even the more recent 11/22/63. Here, the early 1970s come alive as they did in King’s earliest novels, and readers may feel not only a pang of nostalgia for their own pasts, but also for the then-contemporary feel of the stories in Carrie, The Shining, and ’Salem’s Lot. It also doesn’t hurt that our incredibly appealing main character, Devin Jones, suffers from a broken heart, solves a mystery, helps a sick kid, and faces down a ghost. There’s a lot of story in Joyland, all of it rich, all of it accessible, and all of it set during one archetypal summer in which a good guy stays a good guy and wins the girl anyway.
After hitting #1 during the last week of June, Joyland managed to hold the top spot for five more weeks – all of July and the first week of August – before being pushed out by J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Even then, it managed to stay at #2, meaning that for its entire chart run, Joyland clung to one of the top two slots on the paperback chart. King tends to publish new work in the spring and the fall; with the exception of Song of Susannah, book 6 of the Dark Tower series and the last three portions of The Green Mile, King hasn’t had a real summer novel since Rose Madder, released way back in June of 1995. Maybe it was just time for a nostalgic book like Joyland to dominate summer reading. Or maybe readers sensed the darkness blowing in with Doctor Sleep, coming this autumn, and wanted some warmth before the chills set in.
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Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming. Find his books at cemeterydance.com