Thursday, October 23, 2014

Joyland by Stephen King

This is the fourth book I read as part of my R.I.P. Peril the First activity this fall.  Joyland has been on my TBR list for forever, but I didn't actually have a copy of the book until recently, when I picked up the paperback at a local drugstore.  It seemed fitting to buy it that way, because the whole point of the Hard Case Crimes books (of which this is a volume) is to hark back to the good old days of pulp paperbacks that one would pick up from a rack at the corner store.  (In fact, even in these days of electrons and Kindles, pretty much every time I go to the drugstore I swing by the paperback books display and run my eyes over the titles, because books.)

At its core, Joyland is the story of a string of unsolved murders, all of young women and all occurring at carnivals or amusement parks.  However, it also serves as a kind of coming-of-age story for the protagonist/narrator.  Devin Jones, a college kid, happens to be spending his summer and fall working at Joyland, a beachside amusement park along the lines of something like Coney Island.  And this amusement park has a gruesome event in its history: a young woman was found dead in the haunted house ride, hours after she had been on the ride with her date, a suspect who vanished into thin air.  Now, as park lore would have it, her ghost can be seen periodically on the ride.  As Devin works at the park through the summer and into the fall, he begins to be curious about the murder, and especially begins to wonder if her murderer might still be at the park, now working incognito alongside him.

Devin also begins to make friends with a little boy named Mike, and his mother, Annie Ross.  The Rosses live in a house on the beach, and Devin sees them every day as he walks to work.  Mike has muscular dystrophy and spends much of his time in a wheelchair, and Annie spends much of her time trying to (over)protect him from every little thing.  However, Mike is ready to live a little, because he knows his time is limited, so he recruits Devin to help his mother get over her over-protectiveness. Devin helps Mike learn how to fly a kite, and eventually works it out so Mike can get his own private after-hours tour of the amusement park.  An interesting twist is that Mike has ESP (as so many of King's characters do) and can communicate with the dead.  This leads to some interesting plot developments, including the climax of the book, which includes a murderer, a hostage, and an out-of-control ferris wheel.

As an aside, what is it about carnivals and amusement parks that both attracts and unnerves us?  Maybe it's the sense that, underneath the bright lights and happy music, there's a darker underbelly that can be menacing and dangerous.  I'm sure this was not Mr. King's intention, but the climax of this book and the deal with the ferris wheel put me in mind of one of the most terrifying scenes in all of Hitchcock's movies -- the horrific carousel scene in Strangers on a Train:

That scene makes my heart race every time I watch it, even though I know what is going to happen, and this book had many similar moments.  I enjoyed reading Joyland and I would highly recommend it!

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