- Click here to read Tom Callahan's review.
If there was ever a book written for the summer, it would be JOYLAND by Stephen King. It is a beautiful, quietly riveting, multi-faceted work that holds your attention from the jump and evokes the sounds of Ferris wheels and the smells of popcorn and cotton candy from its first pages. There aren’t any sentient choo-choos heading toward oblivion, clowns hiding under bridges, or dads going insane in out-of season tourist hotels. But the storytelling chops that those books and so many others exhibited are in full-on and full-bore display here, should you decide to step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and jump on board.
JOYLAND is difficult to classify by genre. Though it is published under the venerable --- and absolutely indispensable --- Hard Case Crime imprint, it is not exactly a hard-boiled work, though there are elements of detective fiction within it. It is additionally a coming-of-age novel, a mystery, a romance, and has a touch of the horror and supernatural. King spends the first third of the book setting up a worn but beautiful set of dominoes into an unforgettable pattern.
"There aren’t any sentient choo-choos heading toward oblivion, clowns hiding under bridges, or dads going insane in out-of season tourist hotels. But the storytelling chops that those books and so many others exhibited are in full-on and full-bore display here..."
It begins in the summer of 1973 in a fictional North Carolina amusement park known as Joyland, a scant three miles from the equally fictitious but incredibly real town of Heaven’s Bay. The story is narrated by Devin Jones, a college student who is on the cusp of having his heart broken by his girlfriend, Wendy Keegan. Note well: the early days of Joyland, where we get to know Devin and watch his relationship with Wendy go slowly off the rails, contains some of King’s best writing to date by far --- and all without a hobgoblin in sight. Would I be wrong to put forth the proposition that most of us would rather face down a pack of vampires in Jerusalem’s Lot than relive the loss of that first deep love? It’s all right there in the first third or so of the book. Fortunately, life gets in the way, and for Devin, the prospect of working at Joyland and learning the art of the carnival serves as a buffer to the long-distance dumping he receives from Wendy.
There are things to learn about the Ferris wheel, the games of chance, the carny lingo (known as “the Talk”) and “wearing the fur,” the most dreaded job in the park. It is the latter where, ironically, Devin excels --- the hairshirt analogy may or may not have been deliberate on King’s part, but there it is --- and he spends his days entertaining children and his lonely nights listening to Doors records. For a bit, anyway. Joyland, however, has an almost mythical mystery attached to it, one that attracts Devin in an irresistible way. It involves a funhouse and the long-ago murder of a woman whose restless spirit seems to manifest itself as it seeks someone to see that justice is done on her behalf.
Yet the primary story of the novel involves the living, from minor yet unforgettable characters who wander into and out of the narrative, to a young, extremely ill boy and his mother, who slowly but irrevocably enter Devin’s life and change it forever. By story’s end --- a scant year or so after it begins --- everything has changed for Devin, and, as he demonstrates in the book, he feels the tug of those events some four decades later.
JOYLAND is presently available only as a physical book and audiobook. This might seem like a publicity ploy, and indeed, that conclusion crossed my mind when I first learned the news. However, the story contained therein is one of those properly told on a page or by an actual voice; as each page turns, it is hard not to hear the sound of waves and the happy chatter of children, even as the frequently bittersweet events unfold. Even if you have never read a book by Stephen King, for whatever reason, you simply must put JOYLAND at the top of this summer’s reading list.
When Stephen King releases a new book, it's big news in the publishing industry. But when the author says he will release his book only in paperback with no immediate electronic copy, and it will be published by the small Hard Case Crime publishing house, people take note.
King, who can be published by anybody he wants, did this as a tribute to the hard-boiled paperback novels he loved as a kid. Hard Case specializes in publishing this genre and is the best at it, both in reprints and originals. In today's super-fast technological world, King wants readers to enjoy his book the old fashioned way: by picking up a paperback and reading it.
The resulting work, JOYLAND, is a masterpiece of pulp fiction storytelling, showing King at the height of his powers as a storyteller. Unlike many of his books, it is not long, weighing in at just 285 pages. It is part ghost story, part murder mystery, and a terrific coming-of-age novel, a book that will stay with you and touch you deeply. It is somewhat reminiscent of other powerful King works, like THE GREEN MILE and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. But like all great pulp, it will keep you turning the pages to find out what happens next. And like many of his books, it is destined to become a movie or TV series someday.
This is actually King’s second novel for Hard Case Crime. In 2005, he authored THE COLORADO KID, which became the basis for the long-running series on the SyFy network, “Haven.” It was also the first bestseller in the publisher’s history. JOYLAND is destined to become the second.
"...a masterpiece of pulp fiction storytelling, showing King at the height of his powers as a storyteller.... What King has done is transcend genres as only our greatest writers can and tell an incredible human story."
Devin Jones narrates from the present about the year 1973, “the last year of my childhood when I look back on it.” Devin was in college then with big plans to be a famous novelist (join the club), and he took a summer job at a small, dying and soon-to-be-buried-by-Disney amusement park in North Carolina called Joyland. “I was a 21 year old virgin with literary aspirations,” he says. A fellow worker tells him, “You’ve got a carny look about you, kid.”
Ah, the carnival. King has set his novel in one of the most fascinating places in the pulp universe --- a place of fun and entertainment designed to separate the “rubes” and “chumps” from their hard-earned cash. But it was a world with its own language, culture and cast of misfit characters, such as the “mitt reader” or fortune teller --- Madame Fortuna, in this case --- who may indeed have the “sight.” And while it is primarily a family attraction, the American midway also often offered something more; “people like a little dash of sex appeal to go with the rides and corndogs.” So young girls are hired to run around the park in short green dresses and high heels with cameras to “take pictures of the rubes,” Devin learns from one longtime observer.
And every carnival has to have a “dark ride” --- a Haunted House or a House of Horrors --- and Joyland has a doozy. Four years earlier, a young girl had her throat slashed on the ride. She might have been the victim of a serial killer who murdered four girls in three Southern states over the span of three years. And, of course, some have reported seeing her ghost now inhabiting the Horror House.
When you think of the carnival in noir fiction, you immediately think of NIGHTMARE ALLEY, the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham. In the great film noir based on that book, Tyrone Power played the doomed carny and Joan Blondell was the fortune teller. Even with Hollywood changing and cleaning up the ending, the movie lost none of the book’s claustrophobic sense of characters trapped in a world of their own making.
But JOYLAND is not noir; it is pulp fiction. There is a difference between the two. What King has done is transcend genres as only our greatest writers can and tell an incredible human story. At the start of the novel, Devin is madly in love with a girl back home. Listen to the beauty and power of King’s words as Devin tells us: “I had it all planned out. Of course, I also had marriage to Wendy Keegen all planned out, and how we’d wait until we were in our thirties to have a couple of kids. When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It is only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure. By the time you are sixty, take it from me, you’re f****** lost.”
Wendy dumps him while he is working at Joyland, thus launching “my year to embrace loneliness.” King nails perfectly that lost world, as Devin spends hours listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” just released in March of that year, and when “suicidal ideations” creep into his mind, he drops the needle on “The End” by Jim Morrison and The Doors --- probably the most depressing and apocalyptic song in human history.
But on his journey, Devin will also encounter a dying boy and his embittered and lonely mother. He will decide to put off college for a year and stay working in the park after it closes on Labor Day. And when looking back at his reasons, he declares about the ghost supposedly of the murdered girl, Linda Gray: “I wanted to see her, too.”
Do not come to JOYLAND expecting pure horror or gore or to be scared out of your wits. But you find here a great story that just might make you shed a tear or two. Kudos to Stephen King not just for writing this book but for writing it for Hard Case Crime. It’s an absolutely essential publishing house, not just for fans of mysteries and pulp, but for anybody who appreciates great and entertaining storytelling. May both Stephen King and Hard Case Crime continue to entertain us for years to come.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub and Tom Callahan on June 7, 2013