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.

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The Institute by Stephen King

UK Hardback

Kids with psychic abilities are kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where they’re put through a series of demeaning and abusive medical procedures in “Front Half” before being taken to “Back Half”, where their abilities are put to use. They’re told that, once they’ve served their term, they’ll have their memories of the Institute wiped and be set free, but none of the kids are buying that. There’s rumours of a back half to Back Half, where the burn-outs are kept. And after that, well, the Institute has its own cremation facilities.

My first reaction on reading about The Institute was, “Ah, Stephen King does Stranger Things,” because of the psychic-kids-in-an-institute idea, though of course Stranger Things is the Duffer Brothers doing Stephen King, so really it came down to Stephen King doing Stephen King. Kids with psychic powers have been there in his fiction from the start (Carrie), and Firestarter was a key influence on both the character of Stranger Things’ Eleven, and Hawkins Labs where she’s held, but I wonder if watching the show sparked King off with a need to revisit the idea. (According to an article in the New York Times, he began writing the novel in March 2017, so that would have been between Stranger Things’ seasons 1 and 2.)

German cover

But the Institute is no Hawkins Labs, and its kids are nothing like Eleven. Most of the children have no conscious control of their powers, and even those that do, know how weak they are — the best of them can, by really concentrating hard, just about hold back the midges that hang around the rundown Institute playground, or get a vague telepathic sense when someone’s lying. So it’s a mystery why anyone would go to such an effort to kidnap a bunch of children with “psychic abilities that wouldn’t even pass an America’s Got Talent audition”.

The Institute itself is hardly hi-tech. It’s tired and rundown, and mostly just going through the motions. It’s not interested in scientific discovery. (One doctor’s allowed to experiment on the less promising subjects, but it’s strictly a side project.) The main purpose is to get the kids through a well-worn process — give them the necessary jabs, put them through the standard tests — and most of the staff have long since ceased to regard their charges’ humanity as anything but a nuisance. Most are casually cruel; the few who aren’t are outright nasty.

There’s a weird air about the Institute of belonging to another age. The snacks in the vending machines (which kids can purchase with tokens they’re given for good behaviour) include sweets from decades past (candy cigarettes, for instance), though I wasn’t able to pick up on all of King’s hints about this as, to me, all American snacks sound made up. The TVs in Back Half, meanwhile, show “only prehistoric sitcoms like Bewitched and Happy Days”. I was wondering if this was going to be a plot point, or even a joke about Stranger Things’ retro appeal, but in the end I think it was just King connecting these kids’ experience to his own childhood.

US hardback

The main character we follow in The Institute is Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who has minor, unconscious telekinetic abilities. He’s super clever, but the Institute doesn’t care about that. To them, he’s just another kid to be put through the grinder — to be processed, but also humiliated, controlled and broken along the way. One thing that really came through in the first half of the novel is how powerless these children are in a world where the adults don’t give a damn about them. Luke’s first task is to fight as hard as he can not to be institutionalised — not to give in to that sense of powerlessness and simply accept the situation, but also not to pointlessly rebel for the sake of it, which just ends in pain.

I haven’t read much criticism of King’s work taken as a whole, so it was only when I was halfway into the book that I realised how often the theme of incarceration, and escape at great odds, occurs in his work (in, for instance, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, Misery, and Gerald’s Game, as well as being an early rite of passage for a number of characters in The Stand). All of these stories are about characters fighting unfair and often life-threatening imprisonment with a combination of cleverness and patient determination, and King seems to have a particular penchant for that sweet feeling of pure, abstract freedom which follows.

As the book goes on, there are growing hints that the Institute is doing what it does out of a genuine belief in a greater good, and not just the standard thought-stopper of “national security”. It made me feel the novel was heading towards an outright moral argument — could any ends ever justify such means? — but it never did, not in such abstract terms, anyway. Which is a pity, because I think it’s good to have even such basic moral arguments aired every so often. (Virtually every review and interview I’ve read about The Institute brings up the incarceration and separation of children from their families on the U.S.-Mexican border that started in 2018, so it’s not as if the novel needs to evoke the horrors of the past to find any relevance.)

The Institute is the best King novel I’ve read in a while. It may be in part thanks to its having only a very light touch of the supernatural — meaning King couldn’t indulge in the sort of over-the-top horrorshow pyrotechnics that have put me off reading him in the past (Duma Key, for instance) — but also thanks to some very tight plotting, with a large chunk of the novel switching between three very suspenseful situations all playing out at the same time. It made The Institute into a real page-turner.

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Perelandra by C S Lewis

In the second book of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the protagonist from the first, Dr Elwin Ransom, is taken to a different planet in our solar system, the one we know as Venus — Perelandra to the rest of the solar system. This time, he’s not taken for evil ends, but sent for good, his mission having been given him by the eldila (the angels of Lewis’s cosmos). Perelandra, it turns out, is a young world, just about to enter its Adam-and-Eve stage. An ocean planet, where all but one of the lands are ever-moving carpets of matted reeds that flex over the waves, it has two humanoid inhabitants, the Green Lady and her King, who are to found a new race. Shortly after Ransom arrives, another visitor from Earth turns up, Ransom’s old enemy Professor Weston, only he may not be Weston, except in body. He seems possessed by some sort of demonic entity, who has come here to persuade the Green Lady to do the one thing Maleldil (God) has forbidden: to sleep on the single, unmoving Fixed Land of this world. (She’s allowed to visit it, just not spend the night there. And if that sounds like an arbitrary rule, that’s the point.) Ransom, then, finds himself witness to what may be a replay of the Biblical Fall, with a young and innocent Green Lady being persuaded by the wiles of the Tempter, Weston (or the Un-Man, as Ransom comes to call him, once his evil and inhuman nature becomes undeniable), into a disobedience that will have catastrophic consequences for generations to come.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

Two things struck me when I first read this book more than twenty years ago. The first was how similar it was to a book I had recently discovered and become obsessed with, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. Lewis first read Lindsay’s novel somewhere between December 1935 and the end of 1938. (Perelandra was published in 1943.) The thing that leapt out at me was that at the end of both books the main character is given a vision of the cosmic order, a vision described in abstract terms (in Arcturus, we get “tiny green corpuscles” vying with “whirls of white light”; in Perelandra, there’s “minute corpuscles of momentary brightness” and “ribbons or serpents of light”) all accompanied by a sort of explanatory music (a clash of conflicting rhythms in Arcturus, the music of the Great Dance in Perelandra). After spotting this it became obvious to me that, for most of the book, Perelandra wasn’t just replaying the story of the Biblical Fall, but the “Barey” chapter of Arcturus, in which two characters (effectively the Devil and God of Lindsay’s world) argue for the soul of the protagonist — just as, in Perelandra, Ransom and Weston, as mouthpieces for Lewis’s God and Devil, argue for control of the Green Lady’s conscience. Eventually, in Lindsay’s novel, the trio of characters, finding themselves passing through an increasingly watery landscape, get onto a floating island and drift out to sea — which could be the origins of Lewis’s entire Perelandran environment. There are a lot of other minor similarities between the two books, but those are the most striking.

The other thing I thought on my first read was how disappointing it was that, rather than out-arguing the Un-Man, Ransom eventually decides the only way he’s going to win this battle is with a fist-fight. I felt, at the time, that this was a failure on Lewis’s part — any writer’s part, and particularly a Christian apologist’s part — to give up on words and say it can only be solved by violence. I still felt the same on this recent re-read, but to a lesser extent, once I remembered this book was published in 1943, and is lightly sprinkled with references to the Second World War and the sacrifices so many young men were making at that moment in the name of defending their countries. Perhaps Lewis was making a point that sometimes only aggression will work with an enemy so wily and evil.

Paperback. Cover art by Bernard Symancyk

And one of the best things about the novel, from a purely imaginative standpoint, is how evil the Un-Man is. He rips the spines out of frogs for pleasure. When Ransom is trying to sleep, the Un-Man says, “Ransom… Ransom…”, and when Ransom says, “What?”, the Un-Man says, “Nothing.” Then goes on saying, “Ransom… Ransom…” It’s petty schoolboy stuff, but combined with a death-like grin and a sense that, behind those dead eyes, there’s something fundamentally inhuman, or perhaps just unfeeling, it really feels evil — in the same way Stephen King does evil, in characters like Randall Flagg in The Stand. (I did wonder why Ransom didn’t show the Green Lady all those frogs the Un-Man had been ripping up, as that would surely have convinced her of his inherent evil.)

But Lewis goes one better than King in representing the human roots of evil. In my review of Mr Mercedes, I said that King’s villain Brady Hartsfield was given a bunch of second-hand nihilisms as a justification for his evil. Here, Lewis presents us with a much more convincing glimpse of the sort of despair that perhaps led to Weston’s becoming the Un-Man. I think Lewis is saying that Weston has actually died and descended into Hell for a brief time before being plucked out and brought to Perelandra. As a result, his soul was admixed with something else — the Un-Man — and it’s that which mostly does the talking. Weston, however, has retained enough of his humanity to feel despair at the thought of returning to a state of Godless damnation. What makes Weston’s despair so convincing is that it’s not a bunch of statements like Brady Hartsfield’s “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage,” and so on, but something confusing, unresolved, and nonsensical, something without any sort of centre or ultimate meaning. It sounds badly thought-out, and this makes its despair all the more convincing as a thing that Weston is feeling, not merely justifying:

“Picture the universe as an infinite glove with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it… When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe — He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn’t follow us in… He may be there in what you call “Life”, or He may not. What difference does it make? We’re not going to be there for long!”

Set against this is Ransom’s realisation that he is the only person who can act against the Un-Man. The scene where Ransom realises he’s been waiting for a counter-miracle to defeat the Un-Man and isn’t going to get one, so it’s up to him, made me wonder if this wasn’t a glimpse of Lewis’s own inner moment that led him to become a Christian apologist. (I’m sure Lewis will have written about this, but I haven’t read any of his autobiographical non-fiction.)

Cover by Kinuko Y Craft

I’m left with mixed feelings about Perelandra. As an imaginative writer, Lewis can be superb — he creates a very interesting fantastic world, and makes it convincing as a fresh, vivid new creation. And his depiction of the Un-Man’s evil is perhaps the best thing in the book. But the one thing that always leaves me feeling Lewis is cheating me as a reader is that his good characters seem to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. They may struggle to do what’s right, but they have a sense, even in unfamiliar situations, of what is right — and it always turns out to be right. (For instance, when Ransom first finds Perelandran fruit and eats one and is tempted to eat another, but somehow knows he shouldn’t.)

A Voyage to Arcturus, on the other hand, is about how hard it is to really know what’s right and wrong, and how hard-won such knowledge often is — and that, on the way, you find yourself doing things that are very wrong, even shameful, things you regret, as learning experiences. And as this is a fundamental part of human experience, it needs to be a fundamental part of fiction — particularly if that fiction is, as Lewis’s books are, about doing right in the face of wrong. And yes, the fact that it was written during the Second World War complicates things, but that complication, I think, should be the point. There often is no simple right or wrong in a war: it’s one massive wrong, brought about to counter a worse wrong. That eternal compromise — that inherent Fall — is perhaps an essential part of the human experience, and I can’t help feeling that the strengths in Lewis’s writing makes his failure in this regard come across as a sort of dishonesty, a fudging of the rules. I can’t help feeling, reading a book like this, that Lewis, as a thinker, is better than this, and could be capable of producing something of greater complexity, if only he weren’t so intent on conveying a particular conclusion. It’s the struggle that ought to be the subject of a book like this, not the particular prize at the end of it.

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