Joyland, the new Hard Case Crime novel by Stephen King, is not so much murder mystery as it is a coming-of-age story.
Being a longtime Stephen King fan, when Titan Books offered to send me a review copy of Joyland, I jumped at the chance. Honestly not knowing what to expect from a Hard Case Crime novel written by Stephen King, I delved into the book as soon as I could.
Joyland is the story about a man, Dev, in his early 20’s who takes a summer job at an amusement park called… well… Joyland in the 1970’s. During his summer employment, Dev discovers that an unsolved murder still hangs over the park in the form of a ghost that many people have claimed to have seen in the House of Horrors. But mostly, Joyland is really about the friendships Dev forms during that summer, as well as the personal growth process he experiences there.
And therein lies the story. Joyland is not about a murder mystery at all – the unsolved crime in the book is just part of the setting. The story is about Dev and is focused almost entirely on him (and told in first person from his point of view). This is not the Stephen King we’re used to. This is the Stephen King who gave us a story like The Body (later to become the film Stand By Me) – and at times, Joyland reminded me of that much earlier work.
This is also not a scary book. There is a ghost, but this is not a typical Stephen King “OMG, we are so screwed and the evil clown is going to eat us” story. I found this refreshing as I have felt lately that King was beginning to repeat a lot of his own tropes (don’t get me wrong, I still find those tropes entertaining). Do not expect any references to other books or The Dark Tower. Joyland is a standalone novel.
But don’t get me wrong, because this is still a Stephen King book. And Joyland excels with things that King has always been great at: developing characters through dialogue. The man is a genius when it comes to giving characters their own voices in his novels and Joyland is no different. But King takes it a step further and introduces us to carny talk – that sort of special language that people who work in the carnival and amusement business have that is uniquely their own. Due to this, something as simple as an amusement park feels like its very own exotic location.
The characters themselves are beautifully realized. I found myself crying at the end of the book (no spoilers here) because of the way that King developed their relationships. This book is special – something everyone should read.
If I had one complaint, though, about Joyland, it is this: Stephen King insisted that there be no digital copy made of the book. You can’t get this on the Kindle, Nook or on a tablet. As someone who has trouble reading at times due to bad vision, I’m knocking off a point of my otherwise brilliant review for that. I understand that King wanted to create a whole pulp fiction experience with this novel. However, to me, the only important thing about a book is what’s on its pages – its words and its story. You can wrap it up however you’d like, but if the story is good, a reader will remember that long after they’ve forgotten what the cover design looked like. I will admit that my reading glasses gave me headaches at times trying to read the fine print, but fortunately, the story was good enough to keep me going. But honestly, authors, get with the times and stop trying to sell us this “retro” book nonsense about how a book isn’t special unless it’s packaged a certain way. Focus on what’s important – the writing.
But with that rant aside, if you’re into physical books and have the eyes for it, I recommend picking up a copy of Joyland for yourself. It’s a great quick read (another first for King in awhile!) and the story will have you turning the pages well after midnight.