The safety bars came down with a clank, and a few girls tuned up with preparatory screams. Clearing their vocal chords for dark-ride arias to come, you might say.
There was a jerk, and we rode into Horror House.
Summer, 1973. University of New Hampshire student Devin Jones heads to North Carolina to take a summer job in a beachside amusement park called Joyland, little realising that his long-time girlfriend is using the opportunity to split up with him. Devin takes to the work like he was born to it, particularly when it comes to “wearing the fur” of the park’s canine mascot. Joyland has a dark side: Horror House, the park’s only dark ride, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young woman who was murdered inside during the summer of 1969. Devin’s obsession with the woman’s death drives him to stay on at the park after the season has finished, in the hopes that he might see her ghost for himself or, at the very least, understand what happened to her.
Joyland is Stephen King’s second Hard Case Crime novel, following The Colorado Kid back in the line’s infancy. Like Kid, the story of Joyland is constructed around an unsolved murder but, unusually for the Hard Case books, the mystery is neither the driving force behind the narrative, nor its main attraction. Unlike Kid, the mystery at the heart of Joyland has a logical solution that brings at least one aspect of the book to a satisfying close (not, in my opinion, that the murder in the earlier novel needed to be solved). Despite Glen Orbik’s beautiful cover, the novel doesn’t have the pulpy, hard-boiled feel that we’ve come to expect from Hard Case Crime, which is something else that it shares with its predecessor.
Telling the story through the eyes of a sixty-year-old Devin Jones looking back on the summer that made him, King takes us to Joyland and quickly gives us a feel for the place: the different rides, the shies, the Wiggle-Waggle Village for kids aged 3-7, and those areas of the park that are only ever seen by its employees like the administration block and Joyland Under. The park is inhabited by a host of characters from different backgrounds: the greenies, like Devin and his friends Tom and Erin, one of a cadre of Hollywood Girls, tasked with taking pictures of the park’s punters; the old hands, such as Lane Hardy; and then those designated “carny-from-carny”, the people through whose veins the carnival life runs, whose fathers and grandfathers made a living in the business. The building blocks of the type of rich and colourful world that we have come to expect from King.
Outside of the park are the characters of Annie and Mike Ross, who play an important part late in the novel. Wheelchair-bound Mike has a gift that should sate the appetites of readers waiting for Doctor Sleep later in the year: the child gets messages from beyond, catches glimpses of things that haven’t yet happened. Couple this with the ghost that stands at the centre of the story, and it quickly becomes evident that Joyland is not your average Hard Case Crime novel. Part mystery, part horror, part coming-of-age story (of sorts; the protagonist is twenty-one, so we’re playing fairly fast and loose with the definition of that one) and part tale of love, Stephen King’s latest is an unexpected beauty, a well-constructed piece of fiction that stands up in its own right, regardless of which genre label is applied. At turns funny, terrifying and thrilling – much like Joyland’s Thunderball rollercoaster, maybe – it builds to a heart-rending climax for which you might want to have some tissues handy.
There is a vintage feel to the tale, although the writing style is very much modern-day King, including the staple devices that we often find in his later work: the made-up language, for example, this time known as “the Talk”, and based on real carnival lingo with that special twist that makes it all his own. Constant Readers will likely instantly recognise the narrator: he’s a regular King character, though his name changes from book to book. He is the storyteller, the old man with the thick Down East accent that invariably, in this reader’s head at least, sounds exactly like the book’s author.
King has been publishing books for almost forty years (next year marks the fortieth anniversary of his debut, Carrie), and I have been an avid fan – a Constant Reader, if you will – for the past twenty-five. What constantly amazes me each time I pick up his latest novel, is the breadth of his writings. For many years he was lauded as the Master of Horror, and non-readers often have their own perception of what he writes. Most, I’m sure would be surprised by how far from the mark they are. Joyland is an excellent example of the man’s skill and craft, the perfect turn of phrase that can send a shiver down the spine, or bring a tear to the eye or a lump to the throat.
All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue – when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day – I go back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.
Love lost, love found, friendships forged. Ghosts and murdered girls.The carnival atmosphere of amusement parks in the summer. Many of these are not what we expect from Hard Case Crime. Many of them we don’t even expect from Stephen King. What Joyland is, then, is sheer delight, a slim but beautiful novel from one of the – if not the – greatest writers of his generation, and an unexpected treasure in a body of work spanning almost four decades. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: no-one tells a story quite like Stephen King. Joyland should be top of your list of must-read books this year.