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New Releases: Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland - Orbik CoverThis is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. Last week, we fought Communists with Donald Hamilton. This week, we're returning to the (somewhat-) halcyon days of yore with Stephen King.

Joyland (2013) is Stephen King's second novel for Hard Case Crime. His first, The Colorado Kid, was... well, it was a thing. It is my great pleasure to say that Joyland is not only a vast improvement on The Colorado Kid, but it is an atmospheric thriller reminiscent of (if not quite equal to) some of King's very best work, such as "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" or "The Body".

It is 1973, and Devin Jones, college student and nice guy, is at loose ends. His girlfriend, Wendy, is off to Boston for the summer. When Devin sees a job ad for Joyland, an amusement park in North Carolina, he takes the plunge. A long bus ride and a short interview later, he's hired on the spot. In no time at all, he's got a job dressed as a dog, a cool boss and a nice little rented room all to himself. (The room is extremely important. Devin's very excited about finally Doing It with his beloved Wendy.) 

And things just keep getting better. He likes the work, and, better yet, he's good at it. Devin's not "carny from carny" (someone whose parents were carny folk), but he is a natural. Even when "wearing the fur" (dressing up as Howie the Happy Hound - no treat in the blistering summer sun), Devin's having a great time.

And then the Wendy-hammer falls - she's leaving him for someone else. Devin's shattered, and all the joy in Joyland can't put him back together again.

This feels like an odd plot summary for a Hard Case Crime book, but, essentially, Joyland is a prolonged version of "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" - except as written by a sex-starved college student with literary pretensions. This isn't a hard-boiled noir as much as it is an extended Livejournal entry. Joyland is about Devin and Devin's feelings

And yet, that's also what makes Joyland such a delight to read. Mr. King balances his protagonist's juvenile self-absorption with his good deeds and good humour, and, as a result, he keeps the reader squarely on Devin's side. Devin, as previously noted, is a nice guy. And he legitimately loves Joyland: not because he likes harvesting money from the "rubes", but he gets a genuine kick out of making people happy. He genuinely wants the best for all those around him, and that's an endearing trait in a protagonist. He's not just an everyman, he's an underdog do-gooder possessed of enough artfully-composed quirks to be empathetically human. All in all, Devin's about as shameless a play for our attachment as has ever been committed to paper.

Joyland - McGinnis CoverJoyland isn't a conventional coming of age story. For one, Devin is of age as the story begins. As his narrative reveals, he's had plenty of stuff happen in his past and he's got plenty more ahead of him. Joyland isn't the chronicle of a boy turning into a man, it is about a man learning to accept himself. Devin is what he is, and that's completely ok - it just takes a few hundred pages and a fuzzy puppy costume for him to realise it.

And there is a mystery in here somewhere. Four years ago, a young woman was brutally murdered in the park's Horror House. Now, her uneasy spirit haunts the ride, occasionally appearing to select individuals. The story about a ghost and a killer manages to penetrate Devin's post-adolescent haze of Wendy-dumped self-absorption and he distracts himself from his personal problems by playing boy detective. It becomes a way for him to prove himself and, ultimately, fits his new-found talent for spreading joy: Devin's even trying to make dead people happy.

Curiously, Joyland is the first Hard Case Crime (that I know of) to have a note of the fantastic about it. There's a ghost story woven throughout, with a bit of supernatural hand-waviness that helps the plot move along at key points. Largely, these elements are well-integrated. Except for one key point, which I won't reveal for spoilers (sorry), the Joyland spectre never hogs the limelight. Indeed, as the ghost both is and is of the amusement park, characters' relationships with the spooky beastie help flesh out their motivation and give them depth.

It is notable, however, that in two Hard Case Crime efforts, Mr. King has yet to write a mystery. The Colorado Kid is, of course, famous/notorious for its lack of a solution and, in Joyland, using the unknown as he does allows Mr. King to sidestep more traditional detective-fiction beats. In a less capable hands, the use of the supernatural in detective fiction would be a cheat. But, even for Mr. King, so experienced at weaving Weird elements into otherwise conventional stories, the spooks in Joyland prove problematic.

That said, and I can't stress this enough, Joyland is very much in keeping with Mr. King's body of work. It isn't about the mystery, any more than, say, 11.22.63 was about time travel or "The Body" was about, well, a body. The presence of a mystery provides a structure that's familiar to the reader, but, ultimately, the story is about something far more personal - immersion in a moment.

And that moment? A time in place firmly in the past. Joyland conveys nostalgia of the highest order. It is an ode to the days of innocence, when parents would leave their kids with dog-suited strangers without fear of pedophile cannibals, children say "ma'am" and "sir", and, by gum, love was love until death do you part. But Mr. King also hints at the darkness of his novel's time-period. The games are fixed, kids are dying, families fall apart, and, hey, there's a serial killer on the prowl. Devin's pleasant everyman character serves to pull the reader into Joyland's true coming of age story: 1970's America. 

Ultimately, I would be hard-pressed to consider Joyland a mystery - much less something "hard-boiled", "noir" or even, despite the glorious Glen Orbik cover, "pulp". But it is Stephen King in a triumphant return to what he does best: relateable characters, gorgeous scenery and nostalgia for a long-lost adolescence. 

Mandatory note on cover(s): Glen Orbik's cover for the trade edition is fantastic, one of my favourites - even if it plays fast and loose with the book. Robert McGinnis takes a less pulpy approach for the hardcover. I like the hardcover jacket because it suggests a completely different interpretation of Joyland, something more chilling, contemporary and intimate than the lurid pulp pleasure of the paperback. Mr. McGinnis' jacket puts Joyland itself into the background, which I think is really interesting. I'm less pleased with the, shall we say, heavily stylized and barely-clothed female figure, but the composition is fascinating. Joyland gets a third cover in the back of the limited edition created by Susan Hunt Yule, in the style of the old Dell "mapbacks". Awesome. I don't see how it fits in exactly (the mapbacks were the wrong decade), but I'm not complaining. Neat work.