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JOYLAND
by Stephen King
Hard Case Crime, June 2013
285 pages
$12.95
ISBN: 1781162646


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In my mind, there is probably no more under-utilized setting for thrillers than the amusement park. The possibilities are endless: the sense of wonder and youth, the rides, the carnival-like atmosphere, the employees in the midst of a constant "act"; alas, perhaps pressure from the theme park industry, but the scarcity of these types of stories makes this reviewer savor them even the more. In comes Stephen King's JOYLAND, his second contribution to retro-pulp publisher Hard Case Crime's "blast from the past" line of novels after 2005's rather philosophical novella THE COLORADO KID, that provides a great jolt of fun (it seems just as much to the author as the reader) and somehow finds a way to be one of the most moving and affecting books that I have read in quite some time.

JOYLAND, which never pauses for a chapter break, opens in 1973 with New England college student Devin Jones struggling to overcome the heartbreak caused by his first love asking for a "break" in their relationship. He decides to take a job in Joyland, a decidedly down-market amusement park (it actually seems to be closer to a stationary carnival than a proper amusement park) in North Carolina. While college kids such as Devin are hired hands who assist with the park's summer operations, a rather colorful cast of characters serve as the elders of the park and teach kids like Devin the rules of the carny trade—and King makes frequent use of the jargon used in carnivals, further immersing the reader into the world of amusement parks.

Shortly after arriving, Devin befriends a couple fellow summer workers, Tom and Erin; and together the three of them form a genuine friendship that lasts far beyond their summer at Joyland. As these things tend to go in genre fiction, the three of them also take an interest in the story of a girl who was murdered years ago in the park and whose ghost supposedly still haunts the park. Along the way, Devin befriends a local woman and her son who has special needs - a relationship that proves to be as profound and moving as it is well-written and devoid of the tired clichés that one might expect. Tom and Erin move on after that summer, but Devin stays at Joyland and with the help of Erin's long-distance research they try to unravel what might be a series of murders that share a pattern with the travels of a traveling carnival company.

Told in retrospect by an older and somewhat jaded Devin, JOYLAND is Stephen King at his very best: eschewing the six-hundred-page-plus length of many of his novels for a moving, character-driven story that keeps it simple while still allowing the story to flow organically. Beyond the pulpy cover art, the carny jargon, and the naturally corny backdrop of a carnival, King is able to create a thrilling tale of gothic suspense and an extraordinarily moving tale of friendship, love and what really matters in life; and is clearly having a blast while doing so.

Few books of literary fiction pack the emotional punch and track so closely to reality as JOYLAND does, nor can many books in genre fiction claim to have its sense of fun and vitality. While it is primarily marketed to fans of retro pulp fiction, King's fans, and general adult audiences; JOYLAND will also likely find readers among many young adults given the narrative's vitality, brisk pace, and universal themes. No matter the target audience, this book is a real treat and could not be more highly recommended.

§ Ben Neal is a public librarian in northeastern Tennessee and likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, July 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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