Stephen King,
(Hard Case Crime, 2013)

Stephen King has never been content to rest as one of America's finest horror-fantasy writers. Pretty much from the beginnig of his career, he has strived to stretch himself as a writer and, although he has relied on a few favorite archetypes -- the adult looking back at his teen life, the damaged kid with paranormal abilities, for example, both of whom are present in Joyland -- he has consistently tried to go deeper, to examine character, instead of just creating plot.

All of the above to say that Joyland is a different kind of entry in the King canon. Sure, there's a mystery, a ghost and a little psychic activity, but mostly the novel is a character study. It's about the summer in 1993 when University of New Hampshire freshman Devin Jones took a summer job at a carnival/theme park in North Carolina and grew up. Jones has to maintain a grueling job at the carnival while confronting the way a vicious murder from the past hangs over the park like fog -- and the ghost of the murdered girl that lingers in the Horror House. He also becomes involved in the life of Mike, a dying 10-year-old boy, and Annie, his overprotective mother.

This material would make a fine novel even without the paranormal mystery aspect, but King wants to go for the daily double. He brings Jones into the center of the long unsolved murder of a young girl whose ghost has never left the place where she died. All Jones wants to do is free the ghost; he has no idea that he's putting himself and the people he loves in danger.

King is a master of what he calls the plain style of writing; that is, writing that reflects normal speech, without fancy metaphors or elaborate chains or verbiage, and Joyland is narrated in that style, so it sounds as if a man is telling you over drinks in front of a fire about an incident that happened to him when he was younger. King's narrator takes his time, also. The book does not race to its suspenseful ending. It moves slowly, but steadily. In this case, the trip to the life-and-death action is as important as the payoff itself, and as vividly described.

You see Devin Jones growing from a somewhat superficial college kid to a young man of substance, a man capable of taking the bold action he does. Without the growth of the character, the book would not have nearly the verisimilitude that it does now.

Joyland is a fine book, the work of a master popular writer still working at the height of his abilities.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

22 June 2013

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