Joyland and Later by Stephen King

Hard Case Crime was founded in 2004, to revive the good old days of hard-boiled crime fiction, bringing out obscure books from the genre’s classic authors and new works from current writers, packaged with painted covers in a gleefully lurid pulp look. Publisher Charles Ardai thought a cover-quote from Stephen King would draw readers to their stable of what were mostly little-known names, and sent him (via his accountant, apparently) a parcel of their books. King came back not with a quote but an offer to write a novel for them. The Colorado Kid (which I’ve not read) came out from Hard Case in 2005, followed by Joyland in 2013, and Later in 2021. While The Colorado Kid is purely a crime story, the latter two novels feature at least a touch of the supernatural (it’s mostly peripheral in Joyland, but central to Later), and I recently read these two, intrigued to see what King made of the hard-boiled crime genre.

cover by Glen Orbik

Joyland is set in the summer of 1973, when 21-year-old Devin Jones, newly heartbroken after his first serious girlfriend dumps him, gets a summer job at Joyland, a North Carolina amusement park. He mucks in with everything from mopping out ride-cars to “wearing the fur” (dressing up as the park’s mascot, Howie the Happy Hound), and during his time there saves two lives thanks to skills picked up in a basic first-aid course. He also learns that the park’s Horror House ride (“There’s no Tunnel of Love at Joyland, but Horror House is most definitely the Tunnel of Grope”) is haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray, killed by a recently-acquired older boyfriend — a man who, it turned out, had killed other women at other amusement parks over the preceding years and comes to be dubbed the “Carny Killer”. All that’s known about him is he had a bird’s-head tattoo on his hand, and wore two shirts on the night so he could cast off the blood-soaked one after cutting Linda’s throat.

When his friend Tom sees Linda’s ghost, love-gloomy Dev puts off college and stays on at Joyland after the tourist season, intent on seeing her for himself. He gets to know Annie, daughter of a wealthy radio-preacher and faith healer, and her son Mike, who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and is unlikely to see out his teenage years. Annie has broken with her father (who saw Mike’s disease as God’s punishment for Annie’s sinful ways), and was, in her youth, a prize-winning sharp-shooter — something you just know is going to come in handy plot-wise. Mike, meanwhile, has second sight. His mother calls it his “intuitions”, but Mike knows there’s a ghost at Joyland without having been there, and thinks he can free her.

cover art by Paul Mann

In Later, the ghost-seeing kid is not a secondary character but the narrator. This is Jamie Conklin, who regularly sees dead people. They look just like normal people, but only he can see and talk to them. They linger for a few days after they die (looking exactly as they did at the moment of death, gruesome wounds and all), and always answer truthfully when asked a question. This proves an advantage when Jamie’s mother, a literary agent hit hard by the financial crash of 2007–2008, has her one cash-cow author, Regis Thomas, die before he’s finished the last book in a bestselling series. She gets Jamie (whose ability she believes in but doesn’t usually encourage) to quiz Thomas about what was going to happen in the book, then writes it herself and claims Thomas finished it just before he died, thus saving herself from bankruptcy. Also present at that moment is Jamie’s mother’s then-lover, cop Liz Dutton. Liz gets ousted from Jamie’s mother’s life after she brings drugs into the house (she’s couriering it for extra cash), but turns up to “borrow” Jamie when she needs to use his talents. A serial bomber, known as Thumper, has recently died, but not before planting one final time-bomb. Liz gets Jamie to quiz the dead man’s ghost so she can come up with the goods and save her failing police career, and Jamie learns that what he thought he knew about the dead isn’t true all the time, and that this dead man might be more than a little demonic…

hard back cover art by Glen Orbik

Thematically, Joyland is perhaps best summed up in the narrator’s own words: “Love leaves scars.” Dev is scarred by the loss of his first girlfriend; Annie is scarred on the one hand by a severe lack of parental love, and on the other by her deep love for a son who’s going to die; and Linda Gray, of course, is more than scarred by the secret new “boyfriend” who took her into the Horror House then cut her throat — after which she lingers, a love-scar on Joyland itself, a ghostly reminder of the dark side of fun-land.

Later is about the scars of life — particularly adult life — generally, and how some survive what life throws at them, while others go under. Jamie’s mother is hit by both the financial crash and her own alcoholism, though she fights both and gains a new, surer stability at the end. Liz Dutton, however, goes the other way, graduating from the alcoholism she initially shares with Jamie’s mother to drug addiction, then corruption, and finally becoming part of the dark side, the drug-supply network itself. Jamie, a kid at the start of the novel, who progresses to early teens by the end of it, is faced with a too-early introduction to all these adult secrets and life-messiness. He certainly sees some pretty dark things in the book’s final section, in the home of a drug baron with some nasty predilections.

In both books, I think, the most interesting character isn’t the narrator, nor the kid-who-sees-ghosts, but one of the female characters. Annie Ross in Joyland is spiky at first, and slow to warm to Dev, but obviously devoted to her dying-but-full-of-life son. It’s the hard-won characters who are often the most intriguing. Liz Dutton in Later is a woman making her unintended way down the path of evil, but is never too far gone that she isn’t a recognisable human being (when most of King’s more villainous types, once they become evil, also become pretty much inhuman). She’s always working on a plan to set everything right, if she can just get her head above water, but instead only gets in deeper and deeper every time.

art by Gregory Manchess

It’s interesting King started off his involvement with Hard Case Crime by writing a straight crime novel, but soon brought on the kids who see dead people, as if he just couldn’t hold back the Stephen King-ness any more. In fact, I’d say neither book really fits what I assumed was the hard-boiled crime narrative Hard Case seems to peddle, and are closer to just normal King novellas, like those collected in Different Seasons. (“Apt Pupil” from that book would certainly make a better fit with Hard Case, I think.) But, they’re still fun — and short (for King) — novels. Later even seems to join up with It when it brings in the “tongue-wrestling match” of the Ritual of Chüd as a means for defeating demonic entities. (And this is, apparently, based on an actual idea in Tibetan Buddhism, of “Chöd”, a means of achieving enlightenment through self-induced terror.)

Neither book has the mystery-thriller-style tight plot I was expecting from Hard Case Crime’s pulp styling — Joyland is still setting up characters at the halfway point, and Later feels quite episodic, though both have satisfying conclusions — but they’re certainly readable in the usual King manner. I’m tempted to try out a book or two from Hard Case’s other writers, if only for more of those wonderful covers.

^TOP

Mandog

Before The Changes, there was Mandog

(…Or is it Man Dog? The on-screen titles separate the two words, as does the Radio Times/BBC Genome, but the novelisation, and most subsequent reference sources, call it Mandog.)

It started with producer Anna Home (who would eventually become Executive Producer of Children’s Television at the BBC), commissioning Peter Dickinson to come up with an idea for an original TV drama for children. He provided at least three outlines, one of which, initially titled “Clever Dog”, was turned into this six-part series. It was filmed in the summer of 1971 (entirely on location, in Southampton), and broadcast at the start of 1972. (It was on the back of the success of this series that Anna Home decided to adapt Dickinson’s Changes trilogy.)

The story focuses on a group of three teenagers: school-friends Kate Saumarez and Sammy (Samantha) Morris, and Kate’s older brother Dunc (Duncan), who is now one year out of school and about to start work as a TV repairman. Kate and Sammy see a man apparently teleport himself through a garage door near their school, then teleport himself out again. They recruit Dunc to help follow this man and find out what’s going on, and in the best Famous Five tradition bring along Sammy’s dog Radnor (named after the district in Wales where Sammy’s parents spent their honeymoon). Their sleuthing ends at a car dump, and Kate insists they go inside, even though it means climbing through a hole in the surrounding fence. (Kate uses a wheelchair, though can get by for a short while on crutches.) Inside, they’re confronted by a man called Levin, and soon surrounded by his six companions. Kate just comes out with it and tells him they saw one of this group, who turns out to be called Justin, teleporting himself into a garage. Levin, dropping his obviously fake Irish accent for something more stiff and strange, strong-arms the kids into the group’s surprisingly technological headquarters beneath all the wrecked cars and scrap metal, and explains.

Levin, leader of the Group

This group (who call themselves “the Group”) are from the year 2600, a time ruled by a secret police organisation known as the Galas. The Galas were having Levin develop a time machine for their own nefarious ends, but as soon as he succeeded, he and his Group friends used it to escape to the 1970s, so they could build another time-device, return to the future, and free their era of the Galas’ control. They’re only a short while away from completion, after which they’ll leave our present forever. They can’t harm Kate & co., because any one of them might be a distant ancestor, but they do need to ensure the kids’ silence. The scheme they come up with is one that will simultaneously punish Justin for giving them away (which he has done once before, apparently), and hopefully ensure the kids’ silence: they’re going to swap the minds of Justin and Radnor the dog. Radnor will enter Justin’s body (and then be kept asleep, because a dog in a man’s body would be really hard to explain), while Justin will enter Radnor’s body and accompany the kids home. It will be a sort of penance for Justin (they say this is a common punishment in their time) and an exchange of hostages. The two will be swapped back when the Group are ready to return to their future.

Radnor the dog and Justin, becoming Mandog

It all feels like a rather over-elaborate set-up — are we really supposed to believe that in the future, criminals are regularly mind-swapped into dog’s bodies as a punishment? — but it gets the story set up for a mix of lightly comic and adventurous shenanigans. On the one hand, there’s Sammy having to explain away Radnor’s suddenly more intelligent behaviour. (He refuses to eat dog food from a bowl on the floor, instead sitting at the breakfast table wanting cereal or bacon and eggs.) On the other, once Radnor — who Sammy calls “Mister” from here on, because she knows he’s not Radnor, and calling him Justin would be silly — spots one of the far-future Galas in the town, evidently looking for the Group, the kids becoming involved in a series of adventures trying to foil the Galas and help the Group. (Levin explains that the time-machine he left in the future would have had enough power to transport a few more people, so he’s sure not many of the Galas will have made it to the 1970s.)

Kate and Sammy

Mandog feels like a transition point between the kids’ TV of the 1960s — which McGown and Docherty in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama characterise as mostly “kids in anoraks on bikes, accompanied by a dog or two, roaming the countryside in search of smugglers and bank robbers”, which Kate & co.’s adventures with the Galas certainly feel like — and the more progressive kids’ dramas of the 70s, with their mixing of the science fictional/fantastic with realistic modern settings and social concerns. Throughout their adventures, we see the kids getting on with their normal lives: Dunc starts a new job, attends his long-distance-running club, and buys himself a secondhand moped; the girls do their homework and start to find themselves boyfriends. At one point they discover that the Galas have ensconced themselves (claiming to be Syrians on a trade mission) in the home of Mary Ndola, a black girl in the year below them, who is clearly frightened of these strange men. The kids recruit Mary to get Dunc inside her house (in his new job as a TV repairman) to confirm these are the Galas, and then the Group scare them away — by the distinctly un-science-fictional and un-dramatic method of writing them a threatening letter.

Radnor, a.k.a. Mister

It’s not as experimental as the series that really marked the renaissance in kids’ TV drama two years before, The Owl Service (though, like that serial, it uses actors in their twenties as teenagers, unlike later shows like The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on, which used child actors). And the science fictional/fantasy element isn’t as weird (or horrific) as those later shows. We know the kids aren’t really threatened — the worst the Galas can do is use their hypnotic powers or pencil-like stun gun, because the Galas can’t afford to disrupt their past any more than the Group can — and it isn’t until the Group have departed that the kids suddenly wake up to the fact they haven’t asked Levin what the future is like, nor have they really thought about whether the Group were actually telling the truth. Perhaps the Group were the baddies and the Galas the goodies? As Dunc says, “All they were bothered about was who was in charge — and it had to be them.” The only confirmation that they backed the right side is that a handful of silver medals arrive from the future (concealed as free gifts in a cereal packet) with “Hero of the Liberation”, “Heroine of the Liberation”, and (for Radnor) “Dog of the Future” written on them. This could well prove the Group’s good nature (after all, Levin could have just forgotten about them). But, at the same time, I can’t help noting how similar “Levin” is to “Lenin”. I’m sure Stalin handed out silver medals, too.

But, though not much is made of it in the story, I feel that Justin, following his time as Radnor the dog, was changed. Before the transference, he said he’d rather die than be punished in such a humiliating way. But perhaps the enforced reconnection with his animal side — the Group do sound slightly future-robotic with their stilted phrasing, implying a sort of imbalance on the intellectual side — has had some humanising effect:

“It is a relief to be able to look at things with my own eyes again — a dog’s vision is so different. But if you only knew how you all smelt!” Justin laughed. “Goodbye, Duncan, and my regards to Sammy and your sister. I have learned much from you all.”

There’s only one episode of Man Dog available to watch that I can find — and that in time-coded fuzzy-VHS quality on YouTube — so I’ve relied on the novelisation for most of the story details. (The novelisation was by Lois Lamplugh, based on Peter Dickinson’s scripts.) The novelisation, though, differs in small ways from the one TV episode I’ve been able to see, so it might not be a totally accurate guide to the TV series.

Cover to the novelisation

I’ve been wanting to find out more about Mandog/Man Dog since reading about it as a precursor to The Changes, as it feels like a crucial transition story into that peculiar style of 1970s kids’ telefantasy that includes Sky, The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on: rich in ideas, often weirdly horrific stuff that mixes science fiction & the fantastic with an almost kitchen-sink-style realism, exploring themes of environmental precariousness and social change, and big questions about the oppressive influence of the past, as well as the potentially unpleasant possibilities of the future. Mandog isn’t, perhaps, as thematically heavy as those later shows, but it certainly feels like it has one foot firmly planted in (or one leg cocked over?) the new style of the 1970s. It has, after all, music by the Radiophonic Workshop. (On Wikipedia, the music is credited to Delia Derbyshire, but as @phantomcircuit pointed out on Twitter, the theme music is by John Baker. It’s called “Factors” on the 1968 BBC Radiophonic Music album, so it presumably started life as library music.)

It would be nice to see it cleaned up and given a DVD release, though as it hasn’t picked up the same sort of reputation as The Changes and Children of the Stones, it’s unlikely. And, of course, it could even be that not all the episodes survive.

(There’s a “Musty Books” look at Mandog over at The Haunted Generation that’s worth a read.)

^TOP

The Haunting by Margaret Mahy

1986 paperback, art by Alun Hood

Researching Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows for a recent Mewsings, I was intrigued by the book that won the Carnegie Medal the year after it, Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting, which was published in 1982. Mahy, it turns out, was another who, like Westall, won the Carnegie twice.

The Haunting opens with young Barney Palmer seeing a ghost. He’s not entirely shocked, as he’s seen something similar before — though these were more by way of extremely vivid imaginary friends he’d had in his earlier years — but is a bit concerned by what the ghost says:

“Barnaby’s dead! And I’m going to be very lonely.”

Barney’s full name is Barnaby, after his great uncle, and he can’t help wondering if the ghost is telling him he’s going to die. When he gets home he finds his two sisters (both older) waiting for him, mostly silent Troy (the oldest) and her wordy opposite Tabitha (who intends to be the world’s greatest living novelist). They’re bursting to tell him the news: Great Uncle Barnaby has died. Partly in relief, partly in fright, Barney faints.

1984 Heinemann HB

Great Uncle Barnaby Scholar is a relative on the children’s mother’s side. She died giving birth to Barney, and the Palmers haven’t since had much contact with the Scholars, particularly after the kids’ father remarried (to Claire, who, contrary to all YA novel expectations, is a wonderful step-mother, loved by her step-children). One of the reasons, perhaps, the Palmers have seen so little of the Scholars is that the Scholars are an off-putting bunch, largely due to their matriarch, Great Grandmother Scholar, a judgemental and unforgiving old woman whose intensely controlling way with her children has left them all slightly damaged. As Great Uncle Guy says:

“My mother wasn’t a woman who enjoyed having children… She would have preferred to have a set of chessmen, I think.”

And:

“She clipped and pruned us as if we were a family of standard roses.”

It turns out one child escaped her clipping and pruning — at least for a short while. Not present at the funeral, and not mentioned till the subject can’t be avoided, is Great Uncle Cole, the boy who ran away and was, it seems, drowned shortly after. He and his mother didn’t get on (they were “at war from the moment he was born”), and he’s since become, as Guy says, “a guilty secret, and it’s always been easier just to be silent.”

Orion PB, 2018

It’s evident, though, that Great Uncle Cole is still around in some form, for he’s the one haunting Barney. This is confirmed by a scrapbook Barney finds while at the Scholar household, containing a photo of Cole that looks exactly like the ghost he saw — and which immediately spawns inky words, writing themselves on the page before his eyes: “Barnaby’s dead! And I’m going to be very lonely.” After this, Barney finds his world increasingly invaded by visions and messages from Cole, as well as the constant awareness of his presence:

“Someone was walking behind him — a long way off — still hidden in a misty distance but coming closer and closer, holding out a hand lined with the map of another world — a magical world, wise and beautiful perhaps, but not Barney’s own.”

The visions are:

“…little pictures, coming and going without warning… things that someone else was seeing… They were given to Barney as presents, as promises, for the person who was seeing these things thought they were beautiful and wanted to share them with someone.”

But they’re scary all the same, because Cole makes it clear he’s coming for Barney, to claim him and take him away, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Apple PB from 1987, which may be spoiling part of the plot

But while Barney lapses into despondency, his would-be-novelist sister Tabitha is keen to do something, because, in an unusual move for a ghost story, she also saw the writing appearing around the photo in the Scholar scrapbook, and needs no convincing it’s real. The only reason she can’t immediately enlist adult help is that Barney insists their stepmother Claire shouldn’t be told, because she’s pregnant, and Barney (whose birth resulted in the death of his natural mother) is terrified of causing Claire any worry in case it increases the chances that she might die, too.

Cole, Tabitha learns, is or was a “Scholar magician”, a type the family produce every generation or so, someone with “powers and peculiarities” that “have nearly always brought misfortune on them and on those around them”. They can make things happen, induce visions and create objects out of thin air. Cole’s powers seem too strong for Barney to resist, and he tells Barney he’s a Scholar magician too, and so is best separated from his “normal” family, just as Cole himself had to escape his.

The Haunting treads a line between the comic (usually when in the company of Tabitha, to whom everything is material for her novel) and the despondent (for Barney), and builds up to something like a supernatural equivalent of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, where a family get-together, plus an unexpected guest, results in a whole host of long-held secrets tumbling out into the open. (None of The Haunting’s were complete surprises to me as an adult reader, but may well have bowled me over in my early teens. Still, the revelation scene was very satisfying.)

Puffin 1999 cover, by Mark Preston

In essence, The Haunting is about how a family can become entirely skewed by its need to repress some innate characteristic. To all outward appearances such families are entirely “normal” — perhaps, even, a little too normal for comfort, being too regimented and controlled. Here, of course, that characteristic is magical ability, but I tend to read it as a metaphor for other, similar tendencies families can feel the need to repress, particularly in more buttoned-up times, such as creativity, sensitivity, particular emotions, or even all emotion. All of this is centred on Great Grandmother Scholar, who is unrepentant to the end, even when everything’s explained and in the open:

“I’m not one of your weak, whining ‘sorry’ people. I’m too old to be sorry for anything now.”

The Haunting was made into an hour-long children’s TV film in New Zealand (Margaret Mahy’s homeland) in 1987, as The Haunting of Barry Palmer. Perhaps because it was a co-production with a US network, it has some good effects for a kids’ TV show of the time (it seems to have had a slightly higher budget than an equivalent UK show, anyway), and only alters the plot to bring a bit more explicitly magical conflict on screen. (It can be seen, cut into 10-minute segments, at NZ On Screen. It’s probably on YouTube, too.)

(There seem to have been a few supernatural/science-fictional kids’ TV productions in New Zealand around the same time, and it’s a pity they’re not more available in the UK. There was Under the Mountain in 1981, based on Maurice Gee’s novel about telepathic twins, and the TV-original Children of the Dog Star in 1984, which features those two 80s standbys, unscrupulous property developers and child contact with aliens. I wonder if there are more. Do tell me if you know of any.)

Mahy’s second Carnegie win was for another supernatural YA, The Changeover (1984), and odds-on I’ll be reviewing that in Mewsings some time soon.

^TOP