Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Joyland (2013): The Return Of The King

Every once in a great while, a book comes along that you are truly sad to see end. Everyone always says that, but how many people mean it?  It's been a long time for me. In fact, I'm trying to recall the last time I really hated to finish a book. One that I drug out reading for well longer than I intended. Maybe last summer when I read James Newman's The Wicked. I loved that book. I was also very enamored with John Harwood's The Seance from a few years back.

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait to get my paws on the newest Stephen King novel.  I gorged myself on his works, couldn't get enough.  And while I still love my favorite author, I haven't been nearly as excited about new releases, probably because I just tend to prefer his earlier (spookier) works. I still purchase every single one though, for completeness' sake. Which brought me to Joyland.

Joyland is brought to us courtesy of Hard Case Crime, for which King has penned another novel (The Colorado Kid). The Hard Case series emulates the crime novels of the 40's and although they are supposed to be more of a "pulp fiction",  honestly Joyland just doesn't fall in that category for me. Though it does have crime elements - in fact the story centers around a gruesome murder - it is much more a coming-of-age tale.  And with stories like The Body (adapted into the film Stand By Me), Carrie, Heart in Atlantis, Christine, and It (among others)  - we know King knows how to relate to the angst of growing up and making your way in the world.

The basic premise: Devin Jones is a naive college student who gets a summer gig at a North Carolina amusement park called Joyland.

Now, Joyland is no Disney World. It's not even a King's Dominion. It's more of a Kennywood Park (those of you from the Pittsburgh area know what I'm talking about) - an old-school independent park that thrives on tradition and yearly repeat customers.

From the moment Devin steps on the grounds, strange things begin to occur. Nursing a broken heart, he balks when the gypsy fortune teller tells him that relationship is well in the past and that he will meet a little girl with a red hat and a little boy with a dog and that both will have an important impact on his life.

He settles in to the summer job, taking unexpected pleasure in his duties as Howie the Hound - Joyland's honorary canine mascot. He dons "the fur" several times a day, dressing up in costume as a large dog and dancing for kids while parents take photos and enjoy the smiles on their children's faces.

As predicted, Devin meets the little girl in the red hat one day when she chokes on a hot dog. He saves her life, becoming an instant hero and the apple of the park owner's eye.  As the summer passes, Devin and his new-found friends, Tom and Erin (fellow employees that happen to fall in love) try to uncover the pieces of a puzzle involving of the death of a young woman at the park who died in the parks' Horror House several years ago at the hands of a mysterious stranger. All three friends become rather obsessed with the violent crime, and heed the rumors of a ghost haunting the park.

As the trio hopes to see the ghost of the deceased girl on the tracks at the Horror House, Devin finally meets the aforementioned boy with a dog. 
Mike is a charismatic youngster destined for a horrible death by way of an especially nasty type of Muscular Dystrophy. His mother Annie is a beautiful yet aloof caretaker for her sickly son, taking him from their seaside rented house to the shoreline every day to the edge of the water so he can watch the vacationers enjoy their time at the beach.

 As Devin begins a friendly relationship with the small family, the mystery of the murdered girl starts to unravel. Also integral to the plot is the fact that young Michael has a bit of the "shine" to him. He's touched with psychic intuition, and it makes a huge and very significant difference as the book continues toward the dare-I-say bittersweet finale. King has always had terrific character development, and things here are no different.  The main characters are very genuine and likeable, and the supporting cast of personalities make for entertaining interactions and plenty of eccentric "carny" action.  You just can't help but enjoy this story.

Joyland is a terrific summer read, full of boatloads of angst and peppered with just enough mystery to make you wonder how things are going to turn out. Fans of King's more horror-centric novels might be surprised when looking for the gruesome read they may be used to, as the novel is nearly bloodless. It does have its fair share of violence to keep the crime element alive.

One of the best things about Joyland is definitely the ending. (Not that I wanted it to end, mind you.) But sometimes I like a book to be tied up with a nice, neat bow. I like knowing what happened to the characters and how the events of the story affected and changed their lives.  An ambiguous ending works in many cases, but for this detective novel, its flawless finale was so perfect that I honestly started to tear up. I cannot even think of the last time a story made me feel that way.  It's just a great read, and King has got me psyched again. I can't wait for the end of September release of his upcoming Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to one of his most famous novels (and my personal favorite): The Shining.

The King has returned.


Francisco Gonzalez said...

Last time I enjoyed a King book was with The Regulators and Desperation...loved those, this one sounds awesome though. And there's a sequel to The Shinning? Holy Molly, color me excited! Im buying it for sure!

Rg Lovecraft said...

Killer review! This one has been on my list for a while, and I know that I have to read it before Dr. Sleep comes out, otherwise it'll end up in the long list of novels that I need to read just never get to.

Definitely looks like it'll be right up my alley though.


Ryne Barber said...

I also enjoyed Joyland - actually just finished it before your review came out. I found the character development pretty spectacular, but I wanted King to go a little further with the mystery element.

Oh well - I did have that same empty feeling upon completion of the novel - maybe he'll be pressed to write a similar novel, if not a sequel!

Christine Hadden said...

Francisco: I believe Doctor Sleep comes out Sept 24 here in the states. I have this one pre-ordered...The Shining is my favorite King novel!

Rg: Thanks for stopping by. Yep, Joyland is well worth your time. Like I said - NOT SCARY - but really good, with an emotional yet satisfying ending.

Ryne: Agreed, I thought it odd that this book was part of the Hard Case crime series - I don't really get that at all.
But I loved it, he's quite good at coming-of-age tales!