Despite my interest in horror fiction and film, I've never been an admirer of the work of Stephen King. Years ago I read a few of the stories in Night Shift, but since I found them rather derivative of H. P. Lovecraft, I didn't feel any need to read the whole book. Maybe that was a mistake on my part, but that's how I felt at the time. The many movies adapted from Mr. King's books have also never inspired me to read any of his works. Of course, that's not the best way to select what to read, but, once again, that's how I've felt about the movies and their source material. So, for good or bad reasons, I'm rather ignorant when it comes to Mr. King.
I've mentioned in some of my posts of the past couple of years that I've been reading a lot about crime, both fictional and non-fictional. For quite a while, though, I've been aware of a series of crime novels called Hard Case Crime. I read a handful of HCC books before I started my crime jag. Because I've enjoyed what I've read, I've continued with the series as time has allowed.
Mr. King has published two books with HCC. Because HCC hasn't let me down so far, I figured that I should give his work another chance, and so I recently read Joyland. To my surprise, I wasn't disappointed. Consequently, I've decided to devote one of my book notes to Joyland.
I've posted a photo of the cover of the first edition of the paperback edition of the book. My copy was from my local public library, and so it was a bit worn. In case you're wondering, the cover painting doesn't give anything away, since it doesn't depict an actual scene from the book, although it does nicely represent some of the amusement park atmosphere in which much of the dramatic action in Joyland takes place.
The protagonist of the book is Devin Jones, a college student who in 1973 takes a summer job at a North Carolina amusement park called Joyland. But the voice of the narrator, which is that of the older Mr. Jones as he recalls this time in his life forty years later, informs us as the book begins that it's now September, which means, of course, that he stayed on at Joyland after his summer job ended. The reader will eventually learn why he chose not to go back to college in the fall. This part of the novel turns out to be an affecting coming-of-age story.
As you would expect, though, there's more to Joyland than the story of a young man who graduates from immaturity to maturity. Along the way, Devon has to deal with an unsolved crime—after all, this book is an entry in the HCC series—filtered somewhat fitfully through Mr. King's penchant for the supernatural. A young woman named Linda Gray was murdered in the Joyland funhouse a few years before Devon arrived for his summer job. Her death is still unsolved, and she is said to haunt the funhouse. By the end of Joyland we learn the identity of the killer as well as the answer to the question of whether or not the funhouse is really haunted.
It's a convention of a murder mystery that the perpetrator of the crime is introduced to the reader at some point but in a way that deflects suspicion until the plot reaches its climax. Unfortunately, there's really only one plausible suspect, and so it comes as no surprise when this character's guilt is finally confirmed, but Mr. King never gives the reader any reason for suspecting this individual except for the narrative convention that someone in the story has to be the guilty party. That is, it's the mechanics of murder mysteries that drives the reader's suspicions, not the dramatic details of the plot. Consequently, the solution of the mystery is a disappointment.
The supernatural element is rather tangential to the plot. Throughout the book we are told that one of the characters is psychic. This claim is confirmed for us when we learn that the requisite confrontation with the killer reaches its final outcome by means of a supernatural twist. There's a nice surprise here that I won't spoil, but the book as a whole would not have been much different if the entire supernatural aspect had been omitted.
Overall, I should say that the atmosphere of the amusement park was what I liked most about the book. The coming-of-age story was just a little less enjoyable, since it was predictable at times. (How Devon is going to lose his virginity, that is, with which woman, is completely obvious. I'm not spoiling anything here, since Devon is constantly thinking about sex. As readers we know that some sort of resolution is in the offing.) The pursuit of the mystery is generally well handled (except that, as I noted above, its solution is disappointing), and the supernatural element is largely superfluous. In short, the positive qualities of the book outweigh its negative ones. I think that fans of Mr. King's work will like the book much more than I did, but, as I hope to have shown you, you don't have to be a fan to enjoy Joyland.
I'll soon read Mr. King's earlier contribution to HCC. It's called The Colorado Kid. I'm looking forward to it.