“Joyland” is the second paperback original that Stephen King has released with Hard Case Crime, a small publisher specializing in new and vintage crime fiction of the classically hardboiled variety. The first was “The Colorado Kid” (2005), which serves, somewhat loosely, as the basis for the TV series “Haven.” A slight but memorable departure — for King and for Hard Case Crime — the novel offered a gentle, character-driven narrative notable for its deliberate lack of resolution.
“Joyland” is, in many respects, a different sort of book, but it, too, depends on King’s typically unerring sense of character for its deepest effects. The narrator is Devin Jones, a 60-something writer looking back on the summer of 1973, when he was 21 years old. Devin spent that summer as an apprentice carny at Joyland, a family-owned amusement park struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world. Within that Bradbury-like setting, King has created a moving, immensely appealing coming-of-age tale that encompasses restless ghosts, serial murder, psychic phenomena and sexual initiation.
As in so much of King’s work, quotidian details pervade the narrative, providing a solid foundation for the dramatic, sometimes otherworldly events. King pays close attention to everything, from the emotional weather of his protagonist to the1,001 details in the day-to-day life of a working carny. Devin’s emotions are, for the most part, turbulent. Early on, he is unceremoniously dumped by his long-time college girlfriend. King treats this crisis with profound and unforced empathy. His ability to convey the raw, instantly recognizable emotions of a vulnerable young man is one of the novel’s unobtrusive strengths.
Equally convincing is his meticulous re-creation of life within the insular society of a mid-level amusement park. King immerses us in the peculiar reality of Joyland, with its rituals, its pecking order, its rich variety of characters and its unique language. As King takes Devin and his fellow “Happy Helpers” through their daily rounds — hauling trash, stocking shelves with gimcrack prizes, cleaning up vomit, hawking souvenir photographs — he opens up this world and gives it a tangible reality. The resulting portrait of Joyland in action is absorbing enough, all by itself, to sustain a full-length narrative. This, however, is a Stephen King novel, and so a darker, more menacing reality eventually asserts itself.
This begins with the story of Linda Gray, a young woman who was murdered at Joyland. What might have been a grisly but distant event becomes more immediate when a skeptical friend of Devin’s sees what he believes to be her ghost. The story takes on greater import when research reveals the existence of a pattern linking several murdered girls to a series of amusement parks and traveling carnivals — places just like Joyland. Suddenly, the richly detailed coming-of-age tale becomes a serial-killer story with supernatural overtones. Intrigued by the possible existence of a ghost and still struggling with his emotional baggage, Devin elects to stay at Joyland past the season’s end, hoping for a glimpse of the ethereal Linda Gray.
About this time, Devin makes two crucial new acquaintances: Mike Ross and his fiercely protective mother, Annie. Young Mike has a fatal form of muscular dystrophy and is also subject to puzzling psychic flashes. Annie is, among other things, a crack rifle shot. As these various elements come together in a stormy climax, the mysteries of Joyland gradually come clear.
The melodramatic aspects of the story are great fun, but the real strength of “Joyland” stems from King’s ability to connect with his characters directly and viscerally. It’s that emotional bond that marks the difference between books that merely entertain and books that matter in a fundamental way. With deceptive ease and astonishing regularity, King has been writing stories that matter for nearly 40 years. In “Joyland,” he has done it once again.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime. 285 pp. Paperback, $12.95