Dig that retro cover. It’s just one of many things I like about Stephen King’s latest novel, “Joyland.” (If I’m not mistaken, this book is only available in paperback and audio.) I’ve long been a fan of King’s dark fiction, but I must admit that I haven’t enjoyed much of his work over the last ten years. I’ve never held it against him, though, and I always give him the benefit of a doubt. To be a prolific writer for so many decades, how could he not begin to have creative burn-out? To me, many of his mammoth novels seemed bloated for no good reason. I still haven’t finished “Duma Key.”
Published by Hard Case Crime, “Joyland” is less than 300 pages long and is, perhaps, an homage to the old-fashioned pulp novels of yesteryear. Set in 1973, it’s a pleasing mix of genres: part murder mystery, part ghost story, and most definitely a coming-of-age tale.
Our narrator is jilted college student Devin Jones, who decides to leave New England for the summer and take a job on the coast of North Carolina at an amusement park called Joyland. He’s hoping the distance away from home will help heal his broken heart. He fits in with the carny crowd much better than expected, and soon learns about the ghost that haunts the Horror House. Four years before, a young woman named Linda Gray was viciously murdered on the ride, her body dumped next to the tracks. Sometimes people see her standing there, bleeding, dressed in the clothes she died in.
I walked down the double-S, thinking it would not be beyond Eddie to hear me and shut off the overhead work-lights as a joke. To leave me in here to feel my way past the murder site with only the sound of the wind and that one slapping board to keep me company. And suppose…just suppose…a young girl’s hand reached out in that darkness and took mine…?
Devin finds plenty of trouble when he starts digging and realizes a series of similar murders had occurred elsewhere before Linda Gray was killed. Playing detective can be hazardous to one’s health. (Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – it only makes you root for them harder.)
Reading this book gave me a warm, fuzzy, familiar feeling – like how it felt when I first began reading King’s early stuff (including certain short story collections). I enjoyed the superb characterization, interesting, believable dialogue, the suspenseful atmosphere – even the humorous, sad, and sentimental moments. And, in case you don’t know me very well, I absolutely cannot resist a ghost story. Ever.
However, I will confess that I guessed the killer’s identity less than half-way through the book. But seeing how it all played out was fun.
The characters are all colorful, and most of them have an important role to play in twenty-one year old Devin’s life: The fake fortune teller who isn’t such a phony, a dying child with psychic abilities and his beautiful mother, Devin’s two college friends who will help him at any cost. The blurb on the back flap says, “This story is about love and loss, growing up and growing old – and about those who don’t get to do either because death comes for them before their time.”
“Joyland” also reminds me of King’s short story “The Body,” in that it’s told in retrospect by a sixty-something narrator looking back on the summer and fall of 1973. Really, in my head the character of Devin was King himself, being reflective and nostalgic. And what’s so bad about that?