Joyland is Stephen King’s second book for the Hard Case Crime series, following 2005’s The Colorado Kid. Like that first book, best described as a mystery about mystery (in that it doesn’t offer solid answers to the puzzling conundrum within), Joyland doesn’t deliver the hardboiled type of mystery you would expect from Charles Ardai’s fine line of crime novels. But for the almost essential mystery at its core (an unsolved murder at a theme park), it’s more of a nostalgic coming-of-age novel with touches of the supernatural. King’s constant readers will appreciate its surface similarities to his superlative 1998 novel, Bag of Bones, while movie buffs of a certain vintage will no doubt recognize its similarities to a film like Summer of ’42.
That’s not to discourage anyone from reading the book, only to create realistic expectations for its huge potential audience. It’s not King the gore-meister, but rather, King, the seasoned, natural storyteller at the helm here, spinning a tale filled with genuine human emotion, a remembrance of times past tinged with regret, and featuring a young protagonist who is on the verge of learning some life lessons which will serve him the rest of his days. It’s a bonus for longtime King fans that he also bakes a restless spirit and a kid with psychic powers into this particular literary cake.
Set in 1973, Joyland takes place at a North Carolina seaside carnival of the same name. Having just lost his best girl, heartbroken 21-year-old Devin Jones lands a summer job at the seedy carny, learning the tricks of the trade as he begins to learn more about himself and his hidden talents. He makes new friends, among them a couple of contemporaries, and a whole range of colorful carny veterans. Finally, he makes the acquaintance of single mother Annie Ross, and her young, preternaturally gifted, but terminally ill son, Mike.
Devin is fascinated by the theme park’s lore, which includes a tale of an unsolved murder in its fun house. It seems that the ghost of the victim still haunts the ride, making her presence felt to only a select few, among them Mike Ross. Devin becomes obsessed with the tragedy, mulling over things he has heard and seen in random moments. His investigations bring him closer to the truth, but also expose him, and the people he has come to love, to mortal danger.
King is in total control throughout, doling out bits of pertinent information about the central mystery as needed, but never letting them get in the way of Devin’s hypnotic narrative. The man’s melancholy is palpable, his memories bittersweet. He burns with a desire to make sense of his past, having gained the perspective that comes from his six-plus decades. It’s the sense of his sorting his way through history, looking for the answers to the questions that plague all of us, that holds our interest. Cynical but also wistful, serious but also humorous, it’s both a celebration of and an elegy for a time long past.