Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


the shining



Stephen King (

Hodder & Stoughton (


“Shit don’t mean shit.”

In 1978 reclusive American literary great John Rothstein is murdered in the remote New Hampshire farm where he has spent the past 16 years. His safe is emptied, not only of the cash that he keeps there, but also of 150 or so notebooks which are believed to contain at least one new novel and countless short stories and story fragments. Morris Bellamy, the man who has just shot John Rothstein, considers himself the author’s biggest fan, whose only friend during his formative years was Rothstein’s greatest creation, Jimmy Gold. When Bellamy’s friend Andy Halliday refuses to help him sell on the notebooks – once Morris has read them, of course – Bellamy buries books and money in a trunk and promptly finds himself serving life in prison for a drink-fuelled rape that he has no memory of committing.

Thirty years later, Pete Saubers finds Bellamy’s trunk and recognises the value not only of the countless envelopes of money, but also of the notebooks that have remained hidden for so long. Tom Saubers, Pete’s father, is a victim of the recession and, to add insult to injury, is one of the people in line for the City Center Job Fair on that fateful morning when Brady Hartfield ploughs through it in a stolen Mercedes. When Pete approaches Andrew Halliday to try to sell Rothstein’s notebooks, he has no idea that it will coincide with Morris Bellamy’s parole. And Morris has waited thirty-five years to find out what happened to Jimmy Gold after Rothstein’s last published novel.

The first third of Stephen King’s latest novel, the follow-up to last year’s hugely successful Mr Mercedes, alternates between Morris Bellamy in 1978, and Pete Saubers as the first decade of the Twenty-first Century draws to a close, and the second sees a whole new life for his financially-strapped family. As well as giving us an in-depth insight into Morris Bellamy’s obsession, a different type of madness than drove Brady Hartfield, but no less dangerous in the long run, this section allows us to revisit the terrible Mercedes killings, and view the aftermath from the point of view of one of the survivors, and his young family. As always, King’s insight into the mind of Joe Q Public is second-to-none and we feel the pain and stress that threatens to tear the Saubers family apart, and understand the relief they feel when anonymous envelopes of money begin to appear in the mailbox.

Finders Keepers also, of course, sees the return of Kermit William “Bill” Hodges, retired City Police Detective who now runs the eponymous investigation company. He is approached by Pete’s little sister, who believes that the anonymous money has come from her brother, and that he may have done something bad to obtain it in the first place. Finding ourselves in the company of Bill once again – not to mention his unlikely sidekicks Holly and Jerome – is like finding ourselves in the company of an entertaining old friend. Hodges has changed much in the four years since the events of Mr Mercedes, not all for the good, but his mind is as sharp as ever and he is still a believable protagonist in the hands of King.

This second outing for Hodges et al takes a slightly different approach than the first. Instead of the straight crime novel we might have expected, King has injected Finders Keepers with a number of elements that bode ill for our heroes in the third book of the trilogy, and which are of a decidedly otherwordly origin. There are links here to King’s other works that are more overt than Mr Mercedes’ links to the likes of Christine and It: the number on the door of Brady Hartfield’s hospital room, for example, or the strange occurrences reported by the hospital staff, and the unforgettable clack! that will send a shiver down every Constant Reader’s spine. Hodges’ world is maybe not as close to ours as we imagined after reading Mr Mercedes, but is perhaps on a different level of the Dark Tower altogether.

There is a more obvious connection to one of King’s early greats: Morris Bellamy’s obsession with John Rothstein pales in comparison with that of Annie Wilkes for Paul Sheldon, but there are certainly parallels. Both have become so emotionally attached to their respective authors’ creations – Jimmy Gold for Bellamy; Misery Chastain for Wilkes – that any deviation from their idealised view of that character sends them into a murderous rage. Unlike Wilkes, Bellamy shoots Jimmy Gold’s creator in the head and hopes that the character’s salvation lies within the pages of the many notebooks that Rothstein has filled during his sixteen-year reclusion. The fact that Bellamy will have to wait over thirty years before he will get a chance to see what is in those notebooks is the ultimate irony. King is no stranger to obsessive fans, and he channels this knowledge into making Bellamy’s madness not only believable, but extremely frightening. And the appearance of the word “do-bee” will give anyone who has read Misery a severe dose of the willies.

A tale of obsession and family loyalty, Finders Keepers follows a similar formula to Mr Mercedes: a slow start (aside from the first chapter) during which we get to meet the main characters, leading to a fast-paced and intense climax during which nothing is guaranteed and both obsession – Bellamy’s need to see what is in the notebooks a driving force which blots out everything else – and family loyalty are put to the test. This is classic King: a character-driven story that worms its way deep into the reader’s life through the author’s grasp of how people work. Hodges and friends play a less central role than they did in their previous outing – the main story here concerns the parallels between Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers – but King is laying groundwork for the trilogy’s closing chapter, preparing for an epic battle between good and evil that is likely to rival The Stand.

Finders Keepers is yet another unmissable addition to the King canon, a work that focuses on story and character rather than genre. An in-depth examination of the nature of obsession, something that King has looked at many times before, most notably in Misery, this is a beautifully-written novel that makes us empathise with Morris Bellamy while at the same time wanting to distance ourselves from him at all costs: “that’s not me!” we tell ourselves, but we’re left with the disturbing question of what we would do ourselves were we in Morris Bellamy’s shoes. This is Stephen King at his best, a writer with no equal producing work that continues to surprise, delight and horrify in equal measure.

#CarrieAt40: Ghosts of Smoke & Fire by KEALAN PATRICK BURKE


On the web:

On Twitter: @KealanBurke

When I was eight years old, I snuck into my mother’s bedroom while she was shopping, and swiped her copy of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery from her nightstand. This simple act of thievery opened the doors of horror, writing, and imagination to me in a way that no other book (mostly abridged classics, Hardy Boys, and Alfred Hitchock’s Three Investigators series) ever had. I read the book by flashlight late at night every night for the next week, and by the time I was finished, finally knew without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to be when I grew up. When my mother discovered—as all mothers will when the transgressions of their children are so poorly concealed—that I had read the book, rather than chastise or punish me, she suggested a system wherein she would read the books first and vet them before letting me read them. This progressed to her sharing her adult library card with me, but, being a single mother juggling two jobs, the vetting idea became a chore to uphold. I was reading a book, sometimes two a week, and she couldn’t keep up. So eventually she just let me read whatever I wanted to.

omnibusThe next book I acquired was a three-volume Stephen King collection, one of those NEL omnibus editions so popular back in the day. It contained Carrie, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. I read Carrie first, and found of them all (The Shining would be my favorite), this was the one that struck a chord with me. No, I was not an awkward, ungainly pariah with nascent supernatural powers, nor was I bullied at school. Instead, I was a nobody, one of those ghosts the other children neither picked on nor invited into their cliques by virtue of my nonexistence. I was the wallpaper, the shadow without a presence to cast it. I was simply there, and had I not been, the absence would not have been noted by anyone but the teacher at roll-call. Instead—and maybe this went some way toward explaining my intangibility—I had a head full of fantasies and a wild imagination full of conflicts and characters, motives and monsters. I was the loner and for a while I would go home after school and find myself following poor Carrie’s treacherous journey through her own gauntlet of adolescence, and I felt for her, feared for her, wanted her to have a happy ending. But of course, this is King, and in King’s world, as in life, more often than not there are no happy endings. Instead, Carrie allows her powers to consume her. She becomes wrath, and while I had no desire to wipe out my school (would they even have noticed?) or my fellow students, I understood why Carrie did. Did I believe it right, or fair? I couldn’t say. For me, it didn’t come down to right or wrong. It was more a matter of inevitability, a metaphor for the larger idea of nobodies becoming something, even if that something is monstrous. Regardless of who or what you were as a child or a teen, Carrie White is us. She is puberty, that hostile confusing place where there are more questions than answers, where ugliness wars with beauty, where identity is a shadow in the fog, a time of harsh lessons and terrible truths, a Boschian landscape not all of us survive. Most pull through and become the characters in their own exciting, tragic, terrifying, and wonderful novels. Others…

Others tear the world down around themselves rather than climb that ladder up to an unknowable fate.

For those of us who were in the chrysalis upon our first discovery of King’s novel, we have, unlike Carrie White, endured, escaped intact, but not without a critical and necessary education. Life is hard, childhood is harder, and there isn’t a one among us who doesn’t know the feel of the flames.

Kealan Patrick Burke is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of five novels, including Kin, and Nemesis, and over two-hundred short stories and novellas. His short story “Peekers” is currently in development as a motion picture at Lionsgate Entertainment.

#CarrieAt40: Constant Reader by NNEDI OKORAFOR

nnediheehee NNEDI OKORAFOR

On the web:

On Twitter: @Nnedi

At the end of Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel, Lagoon, there is a deleted scene that references a room 217. Because I was in the middle of planning #CarrieAt40 when I read it, and my mind was filled with all things Stephen King, I wondered if there was a connection with King’s novel, The Shining. So, I asked:

The following exchange of Tweets was enough for me to ask Nnedi if she would like to take part in the project.

When I asked, Nnedi was preparing for a tour of Brazil and the United Arab Emirates to promote Lagoon, so her contribution is short and sweet, but is extremely relevant to what I’ve been aiming for throughout #CarrieAt40, and I am glad I asked that initial question about Room 217.

I read Stephen King’s novel It when I was 12 years old. I had no business reading that book but I saw it in the library and thought the cover was cool, so I picked it up. It turned out to be one of the most terrifying and influential experiences for me as a young reader and later a writer (I even have Stephen King shout outs and references all over my work). That book showed me just how much I could enjoy the art of storytelling (and be terrified by it). I went on to read every King book I could find that year. I soon became one of King’s Constant Readers. Stephen King remains one of my greatest writing teachers and favourite authors.

Nnedi Okorafor’s novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), Akata Witch (an Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award). Her short story collection Kabu Kabu was released in October and her science fiction novel Lagoon was released on April 10, 2014. Her young adult novel Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola is scheduled for release in 2015. Nnedi is a creative writing professor at the University of Buffalo.

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King


Stephen King (

Hodder & Stoughton (


‘Because that was then and this is now. Because the past is gone, even though it defines the present.’

Thirty-six years after the events described in The Shining, Dan Torrance – once Danny to most, and doc to those that mattered – is living in Frazier, New Hampshire, working in a hospice where he uses his gift – his shining – to help people in that final step across the border between life and death. Nicknamed Doctor Sleep by those who are aware of his work, Dan is a regular face at half a dozen local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Twenty miles away, in the town of Anniston, Abra Stone lives with her parents. Her shining is the strongest Danny has ever encountered, and while the two have never met, they are aware of each other.

The True Knot travel across America in their RVs, never stopping in one place for long, though they have a number of home bases spread across the country. The Knot survive by taking the essence of children who can shine. Pain and suffering clarifies the essence and makes it stronger, so none of the people who die at the hands of the Knot die well. When the group sets their sights on Abra, they underestimate the power of this young girl, and the people she has around her.

In the first sequel to one of his books, Stephen King revisits one of his best-loved novels to answer one of the questions most often asked not only by his fan-base, but by his own mind: ‘What is Danny Torrance doing now?’ Doctor Sleep picks up where The Shining left off, and we fast forward through the next twenty-five or so years of Danny’s life, stopping for a look at some of the milestones: the night Mrs Massey, the old woman from the Overlook’s Room 217, appeared in the bathroom of their latest home; the night Danny awoke to discover he had spent his paycheque on drugs. Danny, it would seem, has followed in the footsteps of those great Torrance men who went before, his father and grandfather, to become a short-tempered alcoholic who has trouble holding down a job or leaving a bar without a fight. The narrative slows as Danny – now, in his early thirties, known as Dan – arrives in Frazier, and finds the help he needs to get straight.

From here, the events of Dan’s life run in parallel with those of Abra Stone who, like Dan, is born with a caul, and whose powerful shine gives her immense precognitive powers. The two ultimately meet, introduced by an unusual party, someone Constant Reader has met before, and Dan finds himself walking no longer in the footsteps of Jack Torrance, but in those of the other important male presence in his life, the Overlook’s chef, Dick Hallorann (‘When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.’). Like his father, though, Dan retains a constant thirst, but it seems that the support group he has built up around himself – not only his various AA meetings, but also the friends he has made in Frazier – help in this regard. Which begs the question of how different Jack Torrance might have been had he discovered AA before taking the job at the Overlook.

Dan’s alcoholism is not the only evidence of history repeating itself in the novel. A theme begins to emerge early in the story, and King uses light touches throughout to ensure that we don’t forget: Abra’s Pooh Bear nightlight, which mirrors the one used by Danny all those years ago (which may say more about the endurance of AA Milne’s stuffed bear than anything else), and Abra’s regression to early childhood towards the end of the novel, as she hugs her battered stuffed rabbit, echoing Danny’s own regression to thumb-sucking as things begin to lose control late in The Shining. King also uses more literal imagery – the wheel that Abra uses to shift her consciousness into someone else’s body – and in doing so echoes one of the central tenets of the Dark Tower series:

Life was like a wheel, its only job was to turn, and it always came back to where it had started.

Substitute ‘ka’ for ‘life’, and the quotation is almost exactly word for word. There are other subtle references to Roland’s world, finally connecting the world of The Shining to the wider canon: Dan’s claim that ‘[t]here are other worlds than these’ a distorted echo of Jake’s final words to Roland in the first book of the series. There are, of course, references to some of King’s other works, and even one surprising reference to one Charlie Manx, perhaps as repayment for son Joe Hill’s references in this year’s NOS4R2.

As we’ve come to expect from the novels of Stephen King, Doctor Sleep is populated by a cast of colourful and real characters. Long-time Constant Readers will revel in this chance to meet up with an old friend as he reaches his forties, and to meet the new people in his life: young, vibrant Abra; fellow alcoholic John Dalton; Azreel the psychic cat. In the once-human members of the True Knot, and particularly in their leader, Rose the Hat, the author presents the very epitome of evil while giving them a three-dimensional feel that will have most readers looking with some suspicion upon the elderly owners of recreational vehicles for many years to come. It’s testament to his skill that we can come away from a book feeling so strongly about fictional creations, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who felt a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye during the novel’s final showdown.

Doctor Sleep is written in a strange style, halfway between King today, and King of the late seventies. It’s an interesting combination and, happily, it works very well. It gives King the ability to re-use, quite naturally, some of the tricks and tics that made The Shining work so well:

It made him think of how her ponytail had pendulumed back and forth when she

(Dan where’s the Crow WHERE’S THE CROW ???)

ran at Abra’s father.

It should come as no real surprise for Constant Reader that the final act of the novel sees Dan return to Colorado, and the site where the Overlook Hotel once stood. That wheel in motion once more. There’s a nice idea here that evil places attract evil things. The list of towns where the Knot are at home bear this out, with at least one other instantly-recognisable place from King’s back catalogue. As well as providing motivation for that final cross-country trip it goes some way towards explaining and tying together much of King’s work: why do so many bad things happen in Castle Rock, for example? Or Derry, for that matter? Don’t worry, though: there is no sense here that King is winding down, trying to tie up loose ends. Doctor Sleep shows a writer who has matured much in the thirty-six years since the novel’s predecessor was published, but who still maintains the power to entertain the reader, to scare them half to death if need be, to make them cry or make them laugh through the manipulation of words on the page. I’ve said it before, but each time I read one of his novels, it hammers the point home once again: no-one does it quite like Stephen King.

Late last week I found myself wondering how to sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written. This week, I discover that my job was easy when compared to the question how do you follow one of the greatest horror novels ever written?  With books like this, especially when the original is such a well-known and well-loved piece of work, there is always the potential for disaster. Far from that, Doctor Sleep is the perfect follow-up to the story that began with Jack Torrance’s interview for the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is the perfect complement to The Shining, expanding the legend that King created back in 1977, and adding a host of new ideas to the mix. In answering the question of what Danny Torrance is up to now, King has finally completed the wider story of the Torrance family that The Shining, to a certain degree, left hanging, and has gone some way towards laying to rest the restive ghost of Jack Torrance through the actions of his son (for if the son bears the sins of the father, surely any reparations made should be paid backwards). Do you need to read (or re-read, for that matter) The Shining before you start in on Doctor Sleep? Technically, no. King has crafted a novel that stands well in its own right, giving brief glimpses into the events at the Overlook when required. But, as with all these things, going into Doctor Sleep with the story of Jack’s descent into madness fresh in your mind adds an extra level of enjoyment to the story. In either case, Doctor Sleep is a must-read and should prove, in particular, a comfortable re-start point for fans who may not have been keeping up with the author’s recent output. One of my books of the year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

THE SHINING by Stephen King


Stephen King (

Hodder (


review-projectIt came as no surprise when this month’s Hodderscape Review Project title dropped through the letterbox and turned out to be Stephen King’s classic novel, The Shining. With this month seeing Hodder & Stoughton publish the book’s highly-anticipated (by me!) sequel, Doctor Sleep, it was the obvious book to get us all in the mood. I may have mentioned before that I’m a big fan of King, so it was with great joy that I dived in, happy to have an excuse to re-read one of his early books.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

Jack Torrance is a dry alcoholic with a temper problem. Recently fired from a good job teaching English in a Vermont school, he is now reduced to taking hand-outs from his friend and fellow drinker, Al Shockley. Al owns a stake in the Overlook Hotel, a Colorado resort hotel that caters to the rich crowd during the summer months, and closes completely between September and May, snowed in and lonely on its perch, high in the Rockies. The hotel needs a caretaker during those long lonely months, and Jack takes the job, his last chance to get straight and provide for his family – beautiful wife Wendy, and five-year-old son Danny. As the winter closes in, and the Torrance family is cut off from the rest of society, it becomes clear that something malicious is roaming the halls of the Overlook Hotel, something that wants to get its claws into young Danny, whose ability to "shine" has awoken long-sleeping demons.

‘You got a knack,’ Hallorann said, turning to him. ‘Me, I’ve always called it shining. That’s what my grandmother called it, too. She had it. We used to sit in the kitchen when I was a boy no older than you and have long talks without even openin our mouths.’

Like many people of my generation, my first experience of Stephen King’s The Shining was actually Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the novel. To say the controversial film version has coloured my handful of readings of the novel would be an understatement: Jack Nicholson’s inimitable brand of crazy infects Jack Torrance on the page so that the two are almost inseparable, while Danny Lloyd’s finger-waving, "Redrum"-chanting Danny is second only to Harvey Stephens’ Damien Thorn in the "scariest child performance ever committed to celluloid" stakes. That said, I’ve always preferred the source material to the film adaptation, and this re-read has done nothing to change my mind on that score.

At its core, The Shining is a haunted house novel. The house, in this instance, is the Overlook Hotel itself, of course, but the premise still holds. When we first meet Jack Torrance, he is being interviewed for the winter caretaker position. The hotel has a history, one that the manager is unwilling to divulge, but which Jack gleans from Watson, the foul-mouthed maintenance man, and Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef. Like any big hotel, it has its history of scandals and deaths. But the Overlook is different; invested with an evil sentience, it sees the power of Danny’s "shining" and uses every trick in its armoury to take it for itself. The old dead woman lying in the bathtub in Room 217 (a scene which, even now, sends shivers up my spine); the wasps’ nest whose inhabitants come back to life; the topiary animals which have a life of their own, to name but a few of the horrors the reader will encounter during their stay at the Overlook.

Initially, the story centres on Jack Torrance. Short-tempered, but essentially a good man, he sees his stint in the Overlook as a last chance to get himself on track and keep his family together. The subject of divorce has already raised its head, following an episode where a drunken Jack broke his young son’s arm. Jack’s weaknesses – his temper, and his constant thirst – make him an easy target for whatever malignant force inhabits the hotel. As Jack slowly loses his mind, and succumbs to the hotel’s siren song, the focus of the story shifts to the other two members of the Torrance family, particularly the youngest member, whose imaginary friend, Tony, has shown him dark and frightening premonitions of what might happen when they’re cut off from the rest of the world. Danny’s unique ability to "shine" is, ultimately – and to Jack’s jealous dismay – what the hotel is after. As a result, many of the horrors we see – Mrs Massey in Room 217, the topiary animals, the dreams of the familiar Shape swinging the roque mallet – we see through the eyes of this innocent little boy, a trick which magnifies them in the reader’s mind, leaving horrific impressions long after the book has ended.

King charges the story with a sense of claustrophobia – no mean feat when the setting is a 110-bedroom luxury hotel. As the snow falls, then drifts, and the Torrances are cut off from the nearest town, Sidewinder, Jack’s increasingly irrational behaviour turns more towards outright insanity. Frequent intervals of clarity, in which we see this man’s love for his family, make the downward spiral all the more frightening. We get a sense of the world closing down around us; nowhere to run and, following a number of "accidents", no way to contact the outside world. I’ve read The Shining maybe three or four times prior to this outing, and I still find something new every time; this, for example, is my first time reading the story through the somewhat sleep-deprived eyes of fatherhood. The relationships between Jack and Danny, and Wendy and Danny take on a new meaning with this new experience under my belt. My own son isn’t much younger than the Danny Torrance of the book, and that serves to make the young boy’s terrifying experiences all the more traumatic for me.

The Shining stands the test of time better than most. As relevant today as it was when it was first published over 35 years ago, it is also as deeply disturbing and outright frightening as it has always been, even for today’s hardened reader. The pop culture references in which King delights are in place, though his earlier novels seem to be less littered with them than his more recent ones; but rather than dating the work, they give it a sense of time, and take us back to a period when the world was a simpler – not to mention much larger – place. The isolation helps in this regard, so that it’s a novel driven by the three people at the heart of its story rather than by any outside influences that might mean nothing to the modern reader. King delights in the use of a clever trick which gives us some insight into the minds of the protagonists, as brief flashes of thought interrupt the flow of the narrative, often mid-sentence:

His heart thudding slowly in his chest, he took his pictures and then set the camera down to wait for them to develop. He wiped his lips with the palm of his hand. One thought played over and over in his mind, echoing with

(You lost your temper. You lost your temper. You lost your temper.)

an almost superstitious dread. They had come back. He had killed the wasps but they had come back.

In all the hype that now surrounds the name of Stephen King, it’s easy to forget just what The Shining is: it’s the third novel of a young novelist – not yet thirty years old – who is still in the process of making a name for himself. Like Carrie, it relies as much on human nature as on the supernatural for its scares – Jack’s descent into madness is certainly down to whatever is haunting the Overlook, but it’s his fragile state of mind, his damaged self-esteem, and his constant need for a drink that opens the door to whatever is trying to get inside. It’s this meshing of natural and supernatural that grounds not only The Shining, but the vast majority of King’s novels, in some version of reality (don’t forget that Dark Tower that holds all these different realities together). It is this sense of realism that makes The Shining the fine horror novel it is: it’s plausible, it’s memorable and, most of all, it provides us with a cast of characters with whom it is very easy for the reader to relate.

How do you sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written? Or, for that matter, add anything new to the debate? Suffice it to say that The Shining should be top of your list for haunted house stories, for great horror fiction, for great fiction. The latest paperback edition from Hodder is a beauty to behold, and includes not only a brief extract from Doctor Sleep, but also a short, but interesting, foreword from King, which goes some way towards explaining the origins of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism and the effect it had on the story King wanted to tell. If I had one complaint, it’s the bafflement that a book that has been in print constantly for over thirty-five years can still have a significant number of typographical errors. That said, it won’t ruin your enjoyment of this gripping story which will make you want to keep all the lights switched on, and pray that you’re in any room but 217 the next time you check into a hotel. While Stephen King continues to produce some of the best novels, in any genre, that you’re likely to find in your local bookshop, it’s sometimes easy to forget about these early gems. If your first thought upon hearing the book’s title is the vision of Jack Nicholson’s crazed eyes staring through that ruined door panel ("Heeeeere’s Johnny!"), then do yourself a favour and give yourself the fright of your life.

JOYLAND by Stephen King


Stephen King (

Titan Books / Hard Case Crime ( /


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.

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