Let me start out by saying I don’t do Stephen King. Really, I don’t. I’ve never seen Carrie, even though the original came out my senior year of high school. I also haven’t seen Cujo or or Pet Cemetery or The Shining. I just don’t do horror. Really. Or anything violent or scary or icky. (Believe me, I’ve watched quite a few movies through my fingers: “Tell me when it’s over!”) Of course I have seen Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, but who hasn’t? They’re not “real” Stephen King. Oh, and I’ve read The Green Mile, but I put that in the Shawshank category. And then there is Full Dark, No Stars, but I didn’t have a choice: book club. Oops–11/22/63. Ok, so maybe I do read a little bit of Mr. King. But only a little and just enough to make me drag my feet reading Joyland, lent to me by my son, who, it must be said is a King reader bar none (I mean, he’s read the Dark Tower series a gazillion times). Then he promised me I’d cry at the end, so I flipped the King-O-Meter over to the Shawshank/Green Mile category and it was off to the races amusement park!
Dev Jones has little money in the bank and can’t face another summer of work study custodial duty on campus. A little adventure wouldn’t hurt, either. So after sophomore year at a Maine state college, he takes a job at Joyland, an amusement park in North Carolina. (Dev is also soon to suffer a broken heart, but that goes with the territory when you’re twenty.) He’s a greenie–in carnie talk, a part-timer who’s asked to do all the jobs the regulars don’t have time for: mopping up vomit, cleaning out trash, and wearing the fur. Dev happens to have a knack for the fur, which is carnie for playing the mascot. In Joyland’s case, that’s Howie the Happy Hound, a kind of a cross between Clifford and Huckleberry Hound. Kids love Dev’s Howie and Dev loves the kids. In fact, while playing Howie, he saves a little girl and becomes an instant hero.
King’s cast of characters carry the story for the first two-thirds of the novel. There’s fellow greenies Tom and Erin, good kids both. There’s the motherly land-lady Mrs. Shoplaw, the psychic (or was she?) Fortuna, the Bela Bugosi lookalike owner Mr. Easterbrook, the all-around-good guy carnie Lane Hardy. Throw in an aloof (and drop dead gorgeous) single mom Dev meets on the beach and her young son with muscular dystrophy, and you’ve got a great story right there.
Except this is a Hard Case Crime novel. The series promises to bring “the best in hard-boiled crime fiction, from lost pulp classics to new work by today’s most powerful writers.” Enter an unsolved murder at Joyland four years earlier and the “crime” part of the novel comes into focus. Add the fact that a ghost that haunts the Horror House where she was killed and the little handicapped boy has “the sight” and sees and knows far more than any ten-year-old should … and the Stephen King becomes clear.
So while I’ll still insist I’m not a Stephen King reader, I loved Joyland. Give me tender and sweet with a pint-sized Intuitive, and I can ignore the slit throats. But I did cry at the end, thank you very much.