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Sunday August 25, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday August 25, 2013 MYT 8:47:06 AM
By DAVIN ARUL
Stephen King serves up a murder-mystery that’s sweet, fluffy and a tad lightweight, but you’ll savour every little strand.
IT has been a long time since a Stephen King book grabbed my attention from the start and held it right through to the end. Once a voracious reader of all things King, I haven’t been a fan of the man’s later works, ever since I left 1999’s meandering Hearts In Atlantis half-read.
Of the ones that followed, Cell (2006) was all right, mainly because it fell into one of my favourite categories of fiction, the apocalyptic novel. Aside from that one, though, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to tackle any of the author’s more ... imposing tomes out of a reluctance to be disappointed any further.
Still, word that he is coming out with a sequel to The Shining – one of his best ever – entitled Doctor Sleepthis September piqued my interest. And as an appetiser, he would be serving up an entry in the Hard Case Crime series entitled Joyland a couple of months before that.
(HCC, in case you didn’t know, is a murder-mystery imprint started in 2004 by Charles Ardai featuring old as well as new stories by prominent crime/mystery writers like Donald E. Westlake, Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain and Erle Stanley Gardner. Joyland is numbered book #112, though the official website lists only about 90 titles.)
So, about Joyland, King’s second HCC contribution after 2005’s The Colorado Kid (which became the basis, kind of, for the TV series Haven): I picked this one up on my recent book-buying spree during the Hari Raya holidays and finished it more or less overnight. The book is an absorbing read, and the credit for that is due more to King’s accomplished storytelling skills than to its story, such as it is.
For a “Hard Case Crime” book, you see, Joyland has actually got very little in the way of crime. Sure, there is a murder-mystery at the centre of things, but it doesn’t appear until we’re well into the book and then fades out again until it resurfaces much later.
Mostly, Joyland is about a conflicted 21-year-old college student named Devin Jones, who gets dumped by his girl almost at the same time he gets a summer job working in the titular amusement park in North Carolina.
Where the book really scores high marks is in its depiction of carnival life, the parlance and little behind-the-scenes nuggets of information, in capturing the things that go into creating the mass illusion – call it magic if you must – that makes such places so special in people’s lives and memories.
As Dev gets inducted into the world of “selling fun”, so too is the reader drawn into this hard but happy life, made especially eager to find out what kind of shape this likeable protagonist’s early adulthood will leave him in for the rest of his life. A parade of interesting supporting characters troops past us as we follow him on this odyssey, most of whom it’s easy to like, and some easy to loathe; though the revelation of the killer’s identity left me somewhat dismayed.
There is a supernatural element in here that is somewhat jarring when you consider the core theme of the HCC imprint is supposed to be “hard boiled crime” after all. But then, this is a Stephen King book, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find its murder-mystery spiced with ghosts and people who have the “Shining”.
One of these psychic types, a boy suffering from muscular dystrophy, has a key role to play in Dev’s life, and the relationships that develop here – between him and the doomed young Mike Ross, as well as with his strong-willed, free-spirited mother Annie – are predictable and yet among the sweetest aspects of this coming-of-age tale.
The mystery revolves around the murder of a young woman some years ago. It happened right in Joyland one busy night, in its Horror House attraction. The killer was even caught on film by the numerous camera-wielding “Hollywood Girls” (a fine example being on this book’s rather lurid cover) who prowl the park taking and selling souvenir snapshots, and yet he was never identified.
Talk in the park is that the Horror House really is haunted, by the victim’s ghost. And when Dev and his pals start poking around, they realise that she was not the murderer’s first victim....
The come-and-go mystery is maintained in the reader’s peripheral view thanks to King’s tried-and-tested skills in the use of foreshadowing. Most of the time, though, you will simply be caught up in the brilliantly conjured sights and sounds of Joyland as seen through the eyes of an earnest young man with a huge hurt in his heart.
There is pure storytelling magic to be savoured in little Mike Ross’s inevitable visit to the park, and through so much of the book besides – not least of which is the heart-rendingly beautiful final page. Could be I’m just getting maudlin in my advancing years, but this ability to evoke extremes of emotion in his readers is one of King’s true gifts.
It also could be that I found this such a compelling read because it’s just around a third, maybe even a quarter, the length of some of the writer’s other opuses and so I knew I wouldn’t have far to slog. I prefer to think that it’s because he’s firing on all cylinders here. The pleasure of reading Joyland is a good sign indeed for Doctor Sleep.
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Stephen King, Joyland
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