03 June 2013
Joyland by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've read some of the titles in the Titan Books "Hard Case Crime" series so far, and it's been a fun ride through a genre I'm unfamiliar with. The pulpy goodness combined with the retro art makes for a different experience for a reader who's done the bulk of his reading on more modern hardcovers. So when I got my hands on the newest installment in the series, Joyland, I was really rather surprised that they were able to land Stephen King (although I later learned he did The Colorado Kid, which I'll have to get to soon). I'm ultimately glad I checked it out for a lot of reasons.
First, it should be known that I have very limited context with King as a writer. I read On Writing earlier this year, and outside of being familiar with the film/television versions of a lot of his work, I had never actually read any of his fiction. My mother, when I was growing up, was a huge Stephen King fan, and I still have memories of her reading It and having to slam the book shut and put it down because she was so scared. More recently for me, I've gotten into more horror and "weird" fiction, the latter of which is not a space I generally place King, but the former being almost entirely due to Joe Hill, King's son. So my appetite for expanding my genres has been somewhat successful.
Joyland does have its horror/creepy moments, but it is not so much a horror book as much as a summery murder mystery. Taking place in a North Carolina carnival in the early 1970s, it follows a college student, Devon, who takes up a job with the carnies for the summer. He learns the carnival way, befriends a lot of the characters and families at the fair, and also learns of a grisly murder that occurred at the carnival in the past. Devon, along with his new girlfriend and a disabled boy he befriends along the way, get to the bottom of the murder as well as continue to grow up and grow old.
One surprising thing for me, at least, was how much the murder/mystery/horror took a backseat to the broader story of a kid, to use the cliche that's been put out there to describe the book, "coming of age." The ending in particular is very suspenseful and well crafted, but the book really shines less as a murder mystery (you barely hear about it until well over 100 pages have passed) and more as a period piece in a mostly forgotten era. The plot and setting are both extremely credible, and King even says in the endnotes that he did some research into making sure the correct lingo and slang was used with the carny folk. I could even relate to the main character - in a few scenes, Dev talks about having to dress up in a mascot costume, and how punishingly hot it was. I did the same thing at an old bookstore job, and it nailed the feeling perfectly. More to the point, at under 300 pages, it doesn't have a lot of room to meander, and that just helps the plot that much more. Especially in these attempts to try and revisit old tropes, the good often comes part and parcel with the bad, and King avoids that quite well.
I have a lot of good to say, but it's not 100% positive. That the book sells a murder mystery but isn't one is period-appropriate, but not really what anyone would expect or is looking for today. And while the book is written in 2012 and is presumably narrated around the same time, some weird modern nods (such as one reference to Hogwarts from Harry Potter) end up feeling out of place. I can also imagine a reader looking for classic scary King and getting something different. For a reader like myself with little to go on, I didn't mind at all. If my mother were able to pick this up and read it, though?
All things considered, a great read,. Glad Igrabbed it, looking forward to more King soon.
View all my reviews