It’s been a good year for Stephen King’s family. His younger son, Owen, made his fiction debut with the mainstream novel Double Feature. His older son, Joe Hill, returned to prose fiction with the sprawling fantasy-horror novel NOS4A2, and is wrapping up his terrific horror comic, Locke & Key. King himself has two books out this year: The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, due out in September, and the significantly shorter Joyland, from retro-pulp specialty publisher Hard Case Crime. Joyland is likely to be the least and lightest of 2013’s King-dynasty books; in keeping with Hard Case’s aesthetic, it’s a short, punchy paperback with a lurid cover and a quick-stepping writing style. But even in fewer than 300 pages, King finds plenty of room for his signature sprawl. His ghost story winds up having significantly more to do with youth, unrequited love, and the sunny summer flavor of young adulthood than it has to do with an unsolved murder, a restless spirit, and the hard-boiled crime that gave his publisher its name and raison d’être.
The book’s pulp hook concerns a 1969 murder: a young woman is killed and dumped in a haunted-house ride at Joyland, an off-brand North Carolina amusement park founded and run by an perky old Walt Disney-like idealist. Linda Gray’s ghost occasionally appears to employees and riders at the Horror House, extending its hands in silent supplication. Four years later, 21-year-old protagonist Devin Jones gets involved in investigating her death, but spends most of the book investigating his own growing maturity instead. King largely focuses on Devin’s first serious relationship, its gradual dissolution, his heartbreak, and his recovery and self-discovery over the course of a summer working at Joyland. The ghost story is just a garnish; the real meal is in King’s reverie about naïve first loves, combined with his self-aware laughing at the foolishness of nostalgia.
Like so many of King’s books, Joyland looks dim and disorganized in retrospect, or in summary. The ghost story is set up in intricate detail, then dismissed with a distracted hand-wave. The inclusion of a dying psychic child and his suspicious mother feels simultaneously random and like a King cliché. The murder investigation is an afterthought, driven by coincidence and convenience more than determination or skill. The action climax features an antagonist making choices that would look thrilling in a movie version, but seem unlikely and inexplicable on the page.
But King’s power has always been in his ability to infuse his stories with believable detail and rich emotion, and reading the novel is a much more satisfying experience than examining it. Joyland lacks the breathless tension of King’s best horror, but it trades fully in his talent for inhabiting an era and a setting, and for colorful invented detail like the fake professor’s office that serves as a makeout den at Devin’s college, or the way the reality of his first serious love contrasts with his infatuations and expectations. It’s a heady, absorbing book, redolent with carny slang (some of which King made up, in keeping with the author’s love of invented language) and with King’s thoughts on the outsized, untested passions of youth. In that sense, it’s a true pulp novel, an absorbing, emotionally intense distraction that blurs by quickly. While it has more of a satisfying ending than The Colorado Kid, King’s previous Hard Case Crime book, it’s still more convincing as a series of well-crafted vignettes about early romance, self-discovery, and amusement-park life than as a novel. Loss of innocence and hard-won maturity are familiar topics for King, and he just keeps finding new ways to explore them; this particular iteration doesn’t entirely fit its pulp packaging, but at its best, it’s yet another example of a skilled writer finding new ways to play with his favorite toys.