"Joyland" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Titan Books
Written by Stephen King
2013, 283 pages, Fiction
Released on June 4th, 2013
Like millions of other horror fans who love to read, I was introduced to Stephen King's work at a young age. I am part of the pre-Goosebumps generation, so as a kid, books that were aimed at my age group to scare and terrify were few and far between. Fortunately for me, I had a mother that not only was a big fan of horror and a voracious reader, she was also a kickass parent. Rather than shelter me from all the awesome that books had to offer, she embraced my love for the written word. When I went to her with her battered copy of Carrie in my hand at a pretty young age, begging to read it, instead of declining my request she simply said, "Let me read it again to make sure it's not too bad." About a week later, I was given the green light. I couldn't give you an exact age, but it was 5th or 6th grade, so I know I was no older than 12. God bless her.
After that, I devoured everything King. Cujo, Christine, Firestarter...whatever my mom had on her shelf, I ate up, and she had a lot. Some I didn't really appreciate until I was older ('Salems Lot, The Shining, Danse Macabre), but others still remain my top books – of any genre – of all time (The Stand, IT). But something happened after Misery. My love affair with the master of horror started dwindling. His output was still solid – a book or two a year – but the quality wasn't there. Novels like Rose Madder, Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis and even more recent ones like Cell and From a Buick 8 (which, face it, is just a remake of Christine), while good, just seemed to be missing that magic that I grew up with.
In 2005, King's The Colorado Kid was released as part of Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime collection. For those unfamiliar with it, Hard Case Crime is a series of books in the vein of the pulp novels of the '50s and '60s with a hardboiled/noir style. While I don't remember the reviews The Colorado Kid received, I do remember I thought it was ho-hum (and I certainly felt it never belonged in the Hard Case Crime collection, although I will never fault Ardai for publishing it under that umbrella... King sells). So when it was announced that Joyland was coming out under the same banner, I had mixed emotions. It's been so long since I've read any of his work that's wowed me, but at the same time it was going to be part of one of my favorite series of books. Maybe this time things would be different. And by God they were.
Joyland sees the reappearance of Stephen King of yore. Taking place in North Carolina during the '70s, the book follows Devin Jones, a heart-broken college kid who takes a summer job at the titular amusement park. There he meets a mix of carnies, including a psychic who may or may not be for real, and he is told of a gruesome murder that happened in the park's house of horrors many years prior to his arrival. Devin becomes a little fascinated with the victim, even more so when the rumor is she still haunts the place where she was killed.
It wouldn't be a Stephen King novel without at least a little supernatural, and it wouldn't be a Hard Case Crime novel without at least a little spilt blood. It has some of each but not a lot of both. Instead Joyland is a return to form of what King does best (next to his scaring the hell out of you with most of his work pre-The Tommyknockers): the brilliant coming-of-age novel. My favorite works of King are those that have this as its theme: It, The Body (also known as Stand by Me in its movie form), Christine...I could go on. And like Stand by Me, the book is narrated by a much older main character, which in itself lends a credibility to Devin, as he's looking at something from his past with wiser eyes (so to speak) making the story more believable and honest. King's folksy way of spinning a yarn pulls you right in from page one, and each subsequent page only gets better.
As I mentioned, the story only touches lightly on the supernatural (although someone with the "shine" does play a major role) and there's virtually no hardboiled aspect, but it does extremely well as a dark mystery. Where Joyland really stands out, though, is both the characters and King's coming back to good old-fashioned storytelling. Its main players are very memorable and you have feelings – be they good or bad – for each one. There are moments of both true joy and heartbreaking sorrow found throughout its pages, as well as few scenes of unsettling darkness.
Like The Colorado Kid, Joyland is neither hardboiled nor noir enough to really fit in the Hard Case Crime collection. It doesn't have that crackerjack beat of the other novels in the series, nor are there any dames or private dicks to be found. I can't fault its release in the series though, because if that draws more attention to this wonderful banner, all the better. However, Joyland is a most welcome return of the Stephen King I grew up with; the majestic storyteller who can take me on a journey into another world that's a bit like this one but with just a little more magic. It's not all horror, it's not all mystery, but it is all good.