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.
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.
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…
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.
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.