The first time I saw Hard Case Crime’s newest trade paperback nestled in the book nook of my local Super WalMart, I found myself thinking, “Good for them!” It’d been some time since I’d seen any items in that line being sold on the general bookshelves, but if any writer can guarantee such maximized exposure, it’s good ol’ Stephen King.
This is the second King offering to debut on Hard Case – the first being 2005’s The Colorado Kid– but where Kid read like a padded-out novella, King’s Joyland is a fully fleshed entertainment, an enthralling blend of mystery, ghost story and bildungsroman.
Set in the early 1970’s, the novel is narrated by an aging Devin Jones, looking back at what he sees as “the last year of my childhood.” A college student at UNH, Jones takes a summer job working for an amusement park in Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina. Over the summer and into the fall, he experiences his first long-distance break-up and gets caught up in an unsolved murder mystery connected to the park’s haunted Horror House ride.
Along the way, our hero is introduced to the slightly seedy world – replete with its own colorful lexicon – of carny and amusement park workers and meets an attractive single mother and her dying son Mike. The latter appears to have a psychic power that gives him the ability to see Joyland’s ghosts. (There prove to be more than one.) The whole thing ends with a gripping confrontation between Devin and the killer atop a storm-rattled Ferris wheel.
King lets his elder narrator tell his story at a leisurely pace – a geezer’s rueful memory of his coming-of-age – but his voice proves so empathic that we follow him through all of his meanderings. I particularly enjoyed Devin’s descriptions of his youthful self’s broken-hearted ways after receiving a summer Dear John letter. King even manages to get the mopey music that a college kid in 1973 would’ve chosen in the throes of self-pity. The writer is also strong in describing his disreputable proto-carny world, which he explores with as much enthusiasm as his curious protagonist.
Themes of age and loss have shown up in King’s work before (it’s central to Insomnia, for one), while the psychic child hearkens all the way back to young Danny Torrance. But if a few elements appear familiar, that doesn’t take away from Joyland’s myriad pleasures: the work of a mature writer capable of being true to pulp genre conventions and honest character writing at the same time.
I pretty much knew who the killer was in this book long before Devin did, but the mechanics of how he figures it all out were sharply constructed. (Let’s just note that the shapely redhead photog on the book’s cover – who doesn’t really get a moment of peril like we see in the appropriately lurid graphic – does have a role in the solution.) A wonderful addition to Hard Case’s lineup – and to King’s sizable oeuvre as well.