Written by Stephen King — When Charles Ardai and Max Allan Collins started up Hard Case Crime with the intention of reviving the paperback original crime novel with the painted cover, they wrote to Stephen King. The famous horror author had previously expressed his love of the old Gold Medal books. Hoping for some positive words they could use as a testimonial, what they got instead was The Colorado Kid, an original King novel. It has been HCC’s biggest seller to date. Normally, King’s horror stories are published through Hodder and Doctor Sleep, which has been hailed as The Shining mark two, is next up. However, for lovers of throwback-style pulp crime he’s worked with Hard Case Crime once again to bring us Joyland. Could lightening strike twice?
It’s the summer of 1973 and college student Devin Jones is working at Joyland amusement park in North Carolina to pay for next year’s tuition. He doesn’t know it yet but his girlfriend Wendy Keegan is about to break his heart. They’ve been going out a while but Devin has yet to lose his virginity and the letters Wendy has been sending him are becoming shorter and less frequent. He doesn’t know any of the summer workers but quickly makes friends with Erin and Tom. Every day as he walks to work along the beach he sees a beautiful young woman with a disabled son. He and the boy wave to each other but the mother avoids all eye contact. He learns at the park that they are Annie, the daughter of a TV evangelist, ostracised because of her wild youth. Her son is Mike, who has muscular dystrophy and is expected to die soon.
At work Devin is given a range of jobs from maintenance to promoting the rides but finds he excels at ‘putting on the fur’ – dressing up as the park mascot and entertaining young children goes some way to mending his broken heart. So, Devin decides to carry on working at Joyland after the summer rather than return to college to face Wendy. Not only has he found great satisfaction in making people happy but he has grown close to Mike and has hopes of getting close to Annie too.
The twist is that his friend Tom has seen the ghost of Linda Gray, who was murdered in the haunted house ride four years ago. Her killer never found. Devin wants to hang around to catch a glimpse of Linda, hoping it might provide some comfort to him following the death of his own mother from cancer. Tom was really shaken up by the vision but his confirmation of the haunting stirs Devin’s and Erin’s curiosity and they begin some amateur sleuthing which continues after Erin goes back home. They don’t understand that their investigation has put Devin in the sights of the killer, who will kill again to keep his secret.
King is on top form here, channelling the same kind of coming-of-age story that worked so well in Stand By Me. Devin is on the cusp of adulthood and his concerns and feelings are explored with humour and sensitivity. He reads The Lord of The Rings obsessively, for instance, and listens to the Doors. His relationship with Mike and the young boy’s acceptance of his fate is particularly touching. I don’t mind admitting it made me well up a little at the end.
As for the mystery King, builds up suspects then knocks them down like a pro. The final confrontation between Devin and the killer on the big wheel is a master class in suspense. This book is a must read.
In line with the author’s wishes, the book is only available in print, and has a wonderfully illustrated cover painted by Glen Orbik.
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars