After a lamentably uneventful 2012, Stephen King kicks off what looks to be an unusually huge year for fans of the master of modern pop horror with a small but perfectly formed mystery novel. Joyland is the second story King has written for Hard Case Crime, and like The Colorado Kid— which SyFy has since adapted into a reasonably successful TV series that deals with the weird and the wonderful on a weekly basis—it comes complete with throwback cover art and a fantastic, nostalgic narrative.
Joyland takes the form of a tale told by an old man looking back on the last year of his youth:
1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edward G. Robinson and Noel Coward died. It was Devin Jones’s lost year. I was a twenty-one year-old virgin with literary aspirations. I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of Jockey shorts, a clunker Ford (with a good radio), occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart.
Devin—or Dev to his friends, who flit in and out of the fiction like memories lost and found again—Dev, then, is processing the loss of his first love, a heartbreaker called Wendy Keegan who leaves our young man hanging when she sashays on down to a job in Boston. At first, Dev doesn’t know what to do without her, so when the prospect of employment at a nearby amusement park quite literally lands on his lap, he takes the opportunity by the horns, looking to lose himself in something all-consuming.
Joyland is absolutely that. But Dev’s star turn as a Happy Hound will eat up much more than all the time and energy he suddenly has on his hands: to tell the truth, it will consume his youth.
King’s many admirers will be pleased to hear Joyland showcases the author of The Shining and this year’s never-mind-how-needful sequel, Doctor Sleep, at the top of his game. It’s rather more reminiscent of Duma Key and Different Seasons than the aforementioned classic, and more interested, in the main, in natural characters than supernatural factors, but be that as it may, Joyland bears its fair share of thrills and chills.
So sit back. Relax. Make yourself a plate of something, perhaps.
“And I’ll tell you the sad story of the Joyland ghost while you eat, if you want to hear it.”
“Is it really a ghost story?”
“I’ve never been in that damn funhouse, so I don’t know for sure. But it’s a murder story. That much I am sure of.”
Dev hasn’t been at Joyland for long when he first hears tell of this spectre. Supposedly, she’s the ghost of a girl who was murdered by her as-yet-unidentified boyfriend halfway through the Horror House.
That this homicide happened years back is a tragic fact; that something remains of poor Linda Gray to this day is probably just local legend. Dev becomes taken with the tale in any case. He begins by looking into the circumstances of the slaying—one of a number done by a serial killer with an apparent fondness for fairs. Then, when a friend of Dev’s says he sees her, and another makes a dangerous breakthrough, his investigation steps up a gear.
This aspect of the narrative unfolds slowly—in fact, it’s only towards the end that said thread takes front and centre—but there’s more than enough going on in the interim to retain the reader’s interest. Early on, Dev meets Annie and Mike, a single mother and her sickly son, who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and I dare say this pair play a more meaningful role in Joyland’s story than the supposed ghost of Linda Gray. In what is far and away the novel’s most emotional moment, Dev takes it upon himself to show Mike the time of his life. And when he finally rises into the sky, “up where the air is rare,” I had myself a bit of a cry.
A murderer is unmasked come the climax, and there is, admittedly, a slight speculative edge to the entire affair, but Joyland is no horror novel, nor is the “hard-boiled crime fiction” this imprint traffics in a particularly fitting description. What we have here is a coming of age tale, primarily; a beautiful book, warm and honest, about a boy becoming a man, and his tempered transformation really does pack a punch.
In the exceedingly unlikely event that Stephen King is only remembered for one thing, I warrant it will be his talent for crafting characters, which I’d assert is especially evident in this text. In Mike and Annie, not to mention Tom and Erin, Lane and Fred and Eddie—and it wouldn’t do to forget dear Dev himself—King conjures living, breathing people out of thin air, often in the space of a few paltry pages.
Here, however, his sense of setting is also on top form. Joyland is a magnificent place to spend a weekend immersed in, and the surrounding area is nearly as well realised. Here’s how the old-timer who owns the amusement park puts its purpose:
“This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don’t already know that will come to know it. Give such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun. In exchange for the hard-earned dollars of your customers, you will parcel out happiness. Children will go home and dream of what they saw here and what they did here.”
Know that King’s business, at least in this instance, is not dissimilar.
In short, Joyland is a joy. A gem whatever its genre. And I would be remiss not to note that it bodes very well indeed for Doctor Sleep, which must be the most significant novel the stalwart wordsmith has written since the finale of The Dark Tower saga. If the further adventures of Danny Torrance measure up against the high standard set by this more modest effort, King’s constant readers can look forward to another real treat this year.
Joyland by Stephen King is available June 4 from Titan's Hard Case Crime imprint.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.