Stephen King: The name is synonymous with horror. The grandmaster of terror certainly knows how to make a reader experience that delicious frisson of fright. When he manipulates us cleverly, we become putty in his expert hands. In Joyland, King’s newest novel from Hard Case Crime Publishing, the author again delivers a haunting novel. That’s “haunting” as defined in its myriad meanings: “nostalgic,” “memorable” and “spooky.” The narrative is told in retrospect, evoking “nostalgic” reminiscences. It is “memorable” for many reasons, but primarily for the wonderful characters that are brilliantly fleshed out. As for “spooky,” that is the esteemed author’s area of expertise.
Before entering North Carolina’s JoylandAmusement Park through King’s signature lens, a bit of time travel is required. The year is 1973, when 21-year-old college student Devin Jones, smarting from a jilting by his girlfriend, is seeking diversion. The Amusement Park offers it in spades, as woman was murdered in the park’s Horror House four years prior, and her ghost purportedly lingers on the premises, while the man who killed her remains at large. Added to the mix are a slightly psychic fortune teller, a bevy of comely and cutely costumed park employed photographers, plus a variety of other colorful folk. Even off the grounds of Joyland Devin meets intriguing people, bonding with the wheelchair-bound 10 year-old Mike despite the reservations of the kid’s beautiful and mysterious mother. Mike is afflicted with a form of Muscular Dystrophy that is lethal, and the majority of children who have it die in their teens or early twenties. Mike’s lifespan is further compromised by a recent bout of pneumonia. The endearing Mike is yet another remarkable young character from Stephen King’s cadre. And as with some of the other fascinating youths in King’s writings, Mike happens to be psychically gifted.
As enchanting as Mike is, it’s the novel’s protagonist who is most noteworthy. Devin Jones, the raconteur of the tale, is quite a guy. Reflecting back now to his tenure at Joyland, he sagely notes, “When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.” He pulls us hook, line and sinker into his adventures, engulfing the reader with reminders of the tortures and delights inherent with being 21. Devin is a sensitive fellow who more than harbors a broken heart; Rather, he nurtures it: “Even when what you’re holding on to is full of thorns, its hard to let go. Maybe especially then.”
When Devin finally does let go, it’s an exhilarating read. There’s a tremendous sense of connection with the narrator, as if we’ve shared this extraordinary journey together. There are plot detours along the way, with shifts in time and recollections triggered by certain events. Yet the story unfolds like flower petals opening: attention is primarily on scene setting, atmosphere and introduction of characters. Though the initial pace seems leisurely, it suits the Southern backdrop and the pensive narration. Suspense gets ratcheted up and the action accelerates considerably as the novel progresses. And genre lovers, be of good cheer: both the murderer and ghost reappear.
Joyland is not only touching and dear, but also creepy and unsettling. Of course, it’s Stephen King at his best.
– By Sheila M. Merritt