What is a carny novel? At its simplest it’s a book set in the midways and tents of a traveling carnival, which isn’t quite the same as (but is a close cousin to) a circus, a medicine show, a freakshow, a county fair, or an amusement park. There are rides and concessions and games of skill and of chance (all of course rigged to ensure that you lose); there are haunted houses and tunnels of love, fortune tellers and strongmen, pretty girls in spangles and slick-tongued fellows in straw boaters and arm garters, barking a spiel to get you into the tents. There’s the secret language that carnies speak so that only other carnies know what they’re saying. And there’s the vagabond life, perfect for ex-cons and fugitives and other lost souls not quite suited to life inside the boundaries of white-picket-fence America. I’ve wanted to publish a carny novel from day one – but the trick was finding a great one, and I just didn’t seem to be able to.
Well, to be more accurate, I wasn’t able to find a great one that was also obscure, or an obscure one that was also great.
When Max Phillips and I launched Hard Case Crime, one of the first rules we set for ourselves was that we’d never re-reprint a book that the excellent Black Lizard series had already reprinted in the 1980s or 90s – which ruled out Robert Edmond Alter’s Carny Kill. William Lindsay Gresham’s seminal Nightmare Alley, basis for the classic film noir of the same name, was too well known, with at least four editions published in the past three decades, including one by the Library of America.
Fredric Brown’s Madball hadn’t yet been reprinted by Centipede Press when we considered it, but it just didn’t feel good enough – it’s great most of the way through, but the ending disappoints. So here we were, dying for a great carny novel to publish but coming up empty, and out of the blue I get email from Stephen King saying he’s just finished writing a new book called Joyland and he thinks it might be a good fit. And what is it about? A kid who goes to work one summer at a small-town amusement park in 1973 and uncovers the truth about a years-old murder on the park’s haunted house ride. It’s a carny novel, by god. And a great one, I discovered when I sat down to read it.
The book is suffused with carny culture and carny talk, with the history and lore of carny-dom. We learn what it means to be “carny-from-carny” (it means your daddy did it before you did) and how lifers in the carny trade proudly separate themselves from the rubes (i.e., the rest of us) while never losing sight of the fact that if we’re not entertained, they haven’t got a job. It’s a shadow world, but ironically one full of bright lights and splashes of color and explosions of sound. The slaughter of an innocent girl, right under the noses of unsuspecting park-goers – this is stuff that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck but good. (“People rode past her [body] until the park closed and didn’t see her?” asks the protagonist; “If they did,” comes the response, “they thought it was just part of the show.”)
What can I say, but…thank you, Stephen King. And to all the rubes out there, hungry like I was for a great old-fashioned carny yarn? Step right up, boys and girls, that’s right, don’t be shy, a world of wonders awaits…
Madball image via Flickeflu set of swallace99.