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Subtle story grips reader

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Stephen King

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Stephen King

Don't be fooled by the trashy 1940s cover -- this novel is Stephen King at his storytelling best.

Dominated by blood-red splashes, the cover shows a terrified young woman in a short green dress, screaming as she clutches an old-fashioned flashbulb camera while entering, as the cover puts it, a funhouse of fear.

With that you'd expect the American thriller king is going over the top with some gory excess, right?

The scene never appears in Joyland -- a coming-of-age story combined with a murder hovering discreetly in the background -- which is an absolutely marvellous read.

Joyland sees college student Devin Jones taking a summer job at a dilapidated oceanfront amusement park in the 1970s. The park was the scene of a murder in the ghost house a few years before, and it's said to be literally a ghost house, haunted by the victim of the unsolved crime.

But the spooky stuff just sits there quietly for most of the book, never dominating the plot.

So what is Joyland?

It's part of Random House's Hard Case Crime series, but it's not a '40s noir novel with a hard-boiled detective as its trappings might imply.

It is only 283 pages long. In many of his 800-plus-page doorstoppers, such as the recent Under the Dome and 11/12/63, King hasn't even introduced all of his characters by page 283.

King writes about the people with whom he is most familiar and most comfortable: straight white young liberals from New England. Jones, of course, stands in for King.

The focus throughout is on Jones and the friendships he makes, the carnival folk and their world into which we get to peek, his failed love life -- it is, after all, a 21-year-old's coming-of-age story -- and the slow pace of summer life along a beach 40 years ago. It is all told in retrospect in the first person by Jones, who is now in his 60s.

There is definitely an unsolved murder. There may be a ghost. There may be a fortune teller with a slight touch of psychic powers. There may be a little boy in a wheelchair with far more than a touch of psychic powers.

There may be a few scenes ever so restrained that could produce a case of the willies. Maybe. Joyland is above all just a wonderful story that subtly grips the reader.

Joyland most resembles the King novellas that became the films Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. They were superb, as were the novellas on which they were based. This is heady company, but Joyland is in it.

Nick Martin is a Free Press reporter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 G7

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