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Joyland by Stephen King

First the disclaimer: I am not a Stephen King fan, and that’s mainly because I’m not a reader of horror fiction, but Joyland is a Hard Case Crime title, and I’m Hard Case fan. I mention not being a Stephen King fan because he is a popular author and while I’m sure that Joyland is going to attract new readers, I can’t say how this book compares to his other work. While I’d never read a Stephen King novel, I’ll admit to a mild curiosity due to the fact that I have watched and enjoyed a number of films based on his work. The films I’ve seen frequently explore the themes of innocence vs evil, youth and the loss of innocence, the layers beneath small town American life, and, all this of course, often laced with the supernatural.

JoylandJoyland is narrated by a man in his 60s who recalls events that took place forty years earlier. There’s a great deal of nostalgia in the telling of this tale–not just for lost youth, but also for lost love, lost ideals, and even for a lost America. This is a quintessential American novel, and by that I mean that you can’t read it and imagine that it is taking place anywhere else. At the same time, King presents an America that never really existed. The story is set in a small seaside town called Heaven’s Bay. It’s 1973 and 21-year-old virgin, Devin Jones, takes a job working at a carnival, Joyland for the summer:

1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edwin G. Robinson and Noel Coward died.

See what I mean about the nostalgia? It’s hard these days to imagine a time when anyone imagined that politicians were anything other than ____, ____, _____, ____ (fill in the blanks), but back in the day, a number of people were genuinely shocked about Watergate. Notice how the author weaves in several issues is that little sentence: petrol rationing, concerns about energy, unrest in the Middle East, political crookery, and rather interestingly, the death of one of the acting greats who immortalized the portrayal of gangsters on the screen.

So our protagonist, Devin, separated from his long-time girlfriend for the summer, takes a job at Joyland–a low rent seaside carnival, owned by an old-school idealistic owner who believes in treating his employees and customers well, and here’s his pep talk for employees:

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. Given 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.

King is not a subtle writer, but then again I think many of the moves he makes here are very deliberate. The place names are so obvious, you trip over them: Joyland, Heaven’s  Bay, Heaven Beach, but these very obvious elements to the story are matched by elements that are not so screamingly obvious. The carnival workers, for example, are a motley bunch, and no one seems to be quite who they say they are.

Devin, that clean-cut American boy, so clean-cut that he’s a virgin and drinks milk, takes a room at  Mrs Shoplaw’s Beachside Accomodations. She’s an interesting woman who is generous, kind, and welcoming to her summer lodgers–again there’s that sense of a world that doesn’t exist. It’s Mrs. Shoplaw who tells Devin about the ghost that haunts Joyland’s Horror House, the ghost of a girl who was brutally murdered on the ride–her throat slit and her body dumped beside the tracks. The murder was never solved. There’s  something very innocent about Devin, and sometimes innocence is a protection and at other times it’s a liability. Devin, of course, becomes involved in the old murder case while also losing that innocence and finally accepting some truths about his life.

Joyland is an unusual title for Hard Case Crime. It’s not hard-boiled, but crimes are committed, and because this is, after all, Stephen King, there’s a supernatural element to the tale. I’ve read reviews of the book that call it a masterpiece, and while I wouldn’t go that far, nonetheless, I’m glad I read it. After watching many Stephen King film adaptations, Joyland is about what I expected with its theme of the power of the good against the power of evil. The transition to adulthood is a dodgy period in which an individual can make any number of bad choices, but in Devin’s case, he repeatedly does good deeds and takes a definite stand against evil. The penultimate scene is presaged by Devin’s actions within the park, and incidents in which he doesn’t think, he acts. Each of these incidents are seemingly unconnected, but in reality, in a mystical sort of way, Devin is repeatedly tested by fate and with each incident, his aura of goodness strengthens for the moment of his final battle. As odd as this may sound, I thought about King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and how the knights had to sally forth on quests that basically became the moral measure of each man. The story’s nostalgia is nicely conveyed with Devin still not quite come to terms with the people he met and lost, so consequently the story is laced with a patina of loss and sadness.

Review copy.

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