Joyland was an indie, not as big as a Six Flags park, and nowhere near as big as Disney World, but it was large enough to be impressive, especially with Joyland Avenue, the main drag, and Hound Dog Way, the secondary drag, almost empty and looking eight lanes wide. I heard the whine of power-saws and saw plenty of workmen—the largest crew swarming over the Thunderball, one of Joyland’s two coasters—but there were no customers, because the park didn’t open until May fifteenth. A few of the food concessions were doing business to take care of the workers’ lunch needs, though, and an old lady in front of a star-studded tell-your-fortune kiosk was staring at me suspiciously. With one exception, everything else was shut up tight.
The exception of the Carolina Spin. It was a hundred and seventy feet tall (this I found out later), and turning very slowly. Out in front stood a tightly muscled guy in faded jeans, balding suede boots splotched with grease, and a strap-style tee shirt. He wore a derby hat tilted on his coal-black hair. A filterless cigarette was parked behind one ear. He looked like a cartoon carnival barker from an old-time newspaper strip. There was an open toolbox and a big portable radio on an orange crate beside him. The Faces were singing “Stay with Me.” The guy was bopping to the beat, hands in his back pockets, hips moving side to side. I had a thought, absurd but perfectly clear: When I grow up, I want to look just like this guy.
He pointed to the pass. “Freddy Dean sent you, right? Told you everything else was closed, but you could take a ride on the big wheel.”
“A ride on the Spin means you’re in. He likes the chosen few to get the aerial view. You gonna take the job?”
“I think so.”
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Lane Hardy. Welcome aboard, kid.”
I shook with him. “Devin Jones.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
He started up the inclined walk leading to the gently turning ride, grabbed a long lever that looked like a stick shift, and edged it back. The wheel came to a slow stop with one of the gaily painted cabins (the image of Howie the Happy Hound on each) swaying at the passenger loading dock.
“Climb aboard, Jonesy. I’m going to send you up where the air is rare and the view is much more than fair.”
I climbed into the cabin and closed the door. Lane gave it a shake to make sure it was latched, dropped the safety bar, then returned to his rudimentary controls. “Ready for takeoff, cap’n?”
“I guess so.”
“Amazement awaits.” He gave me a wink and advanced the control stick. The wheel began to turn again and all at once he was looking up at me. So was the old lady by the fortune-telling booth. Her neck was craned and she was shading her eyes. I waved to her. She didn’t wave back.
Then I was above everything but the convoluted dips and twists of the Thunderball, rising into the chilly early spring air, and feeling—stupid but true—that I was leaving all my cares and worries down below.
Joyland wasn’t a theme park, which allowed it to have a little bit of everything. There was a secondary roller coaster called the Delirium Shaker and a water slide (Captain Nemo’s Splash & Crash). On the far western side of the park was a special annex for the little ones called the Wiggle-Waggle Village. There was also a concert hall where most of the acts—this I also learned later—were either B-list C&W or the kind of rocker who peaked in the fifties or sixties. I remember that Johnny Otis and Big Joe Turner did a show there together. I had to ask Brenda Rafferty, the head accountant who was also a kind of den mother to the Hollywood Girls, who they were. Bren thought I was dense; I thought she was old; we were both probably right.
Lane Hardy took me all the way to the top and then stopped the wheel. I sat in the swaying car, gripping the safety bar, and looking out at a brand-new world. To the west was the North Carolina flatland, looking incredibly green to a New England kid who was used to thinking of March as nothing but true spring’s cold and muddy precursor. To the east was the ocean, a deep metallic blue until it broke in creamy-white pulses on the beach where I would tote my abused heart up and down a few months hence. Directly below me was the good-natured jumble of Joyland—the big rides and small ones, the concert hall and concessions, the souvenir shops and the Happy Hound Shuttle, which took customers to the adjacent motels and, of course, the beach. To the north was Heaven’s Bay. From high above the park (upstairs, where the air is rare), the town looked like a nestle of children’s blocks from which four church steeples rose at the major points of the compass.
The wheel began to move again. I came down feeling like a kid in a Rudyard Kipling story, riding on the nose of an elephant. Lane Hardy brought me to a stop, but didn’t bother to unlatch the car’s door for me; I was, after all, almost an employee.
“How’d you like it?”
“Great,” I said.
“Yeah, it ain’t bad for a grandma ride.” He reset his derby so it slanted the other way and cast an appraising eye over me.
“How tall are you? Six-three?”
“Uh-huh. Let’s see how you like ridin all six-four of you on the Spin in the middle of July, wearin the fur and singin ‘Happy Birthday’ to some spoiled-rotten little snothole with cotton candy in one hand and a meltin Kollie Kone in the other.”
“Wearing what fur?”
But he was headed back to his machinery and didn’t answer.
Maybe he couldn’t hear me over his radio, which was now blasting “Crocodile Rock.” Or maybe he just wanted my future occupation as one of Joyland’s cadre of Happy Hounds to come as a surprise.
Excerpted from JOYLAND, by Stephen King, published by Hard Case Crime on June 7th 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Stephen King
Pre-order it here