Joyland by Stephen King

JoylandSet in a seafront amusement park in 1973, Joyland (2013) by Stephen King is a bittersweet coming of age story with all the heartache, sadness and nostalgia such a story warrants.

It’s the story of one 21-year-oldĀ Devin Jones, how he lost his first love, wore a dog suit and solved a murder while working a summer job at a dilapidated indie carny with colourful characters, a secret language and a ghost.

The ghost of Linda Gray fittingly haunts a ride called Horror House. Her killer was never caught, but some can still see Linda at the site of her murder, holding her hands out, appealing for help.

The crime and the ghost are secondary; the main focus is on Devin as a young man. Similar to King’s other nostalgic tales, such as The Body or Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Joyland is a sepia-toned account told in the first person by an older Devin. King balances his storytelling well; the reminiscence never feels manufactured or saccharine, but genuinely heartfelt. Devin’s girl troubles and emotions are, after all, known to all young men.

Naturally, Devin’s experiences go above and beyond the norm; with the help of his friends and co-workers Erin and Tom, he begins to research the murder of Linda Gray, eventually figuring out the clues (this is a Hard Case Crime novel, after all). Along the way Devin befriends a dying boy and his mother, who become instrumental in the redemption of both Linda Gray and Devin himself.

The setting, a second-tier carny, is a world unto itself, complete with its own slang, the Talk. Full of terms and expressions such as “rubes” or “tipsed” or “carny-from-carny”, the secret carnival lingo is half invented, but most of it is based on real slang and all of it works to create an atmosphere that convincingly transports the reader in both time and place.

The slang may have inspired King to write some of the best storytelling of his long career; the language flows effortlessly, filled with small details, humour and warmth. King’s always been a great storyteller, but Joyland is something exceptional. In spite of being low on horror and action, the first three quarters of the book are spellbinding, a true testament to the power of fiction. The final quarter, with its emphasis on the crime, feels almost unnecessary.

***** (5/5)

Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

10900272Gods and men clash to the soundtrack of blues in John Hornor Jacobs‘ first novel. Set in 1950s Arkansas, the story follows a hardboiled WW2 veteran as he is hired to locate two men, one of whom makes such music as will drive men to kill.

The gumshoe is Bull Ingram; his first target is a record company man who’s disappeared during payola visits to local radio stations. The other man, Ramblin’ John Hastur, is a bluesman, whose crazy tunes about yellow signs and other Lovecraftian thingumajigs are transmitted on pirate radio throughout the South.

The setting is brilliant, the atmosphere well developed. The world of murky blues recordings and 50s radio offer a rich and colourful background for Bull to roam in. Jacobs has a natural rhythm to his storytelling and the characters are, for the first half of the novel, compelling creations. Bull’s story reaches its zenith at a blues gig, where the main attraction literally brings the house down.

Unfortunately, the second half of the novel gets bogged down in static scenery (it’s mostly set in one house) and too much Lovecraftian exposition. The fine theme of blues, so evident in the first half, fades away. The already pulpy characters get increasingly pulpier; there’s a love interest, Sarah, and a Montenegran priest, Father Andrez, who seems a strangely sane individual for someone who has so much Cthulhu Mythos. All the tantalising mysteries of the first half are explained away in embarrassing detail, and as the story is set in the South, family histories also come into play in a heavy way.

However, even in the midst of Derlethian tripe of good versus evil, Jacobs displays an original voice: the take on the eternal struggle is a bit different, the good old Necronomicon gets a new treatment, and instead of a Christian god, it’s an ancient Roman deity that proves to be of most help to our heroes and heroines.

Altogether, the first half of the novel is unreservedly great; the second half is a trudge with some small pockets of guilty pleasure. Luckily, Jacobs’ leisurely storytelling and a natural knack for creating atmosphere provide just enough glue to keep the package enjoyably together. But the seams are clearly visible.

**** (4/5)