I’ll clarify from the start that Joyland is the first full length Stephen King book I have read so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The premise has everything I was looking for: a creepy carnival, a potential serial killer and a haunted fairground ride.
Horror House was a dark ride, but when it was in operation, this stretch was the only completely dark part. It had to be where the girl’s killer had cut her throat and dumped her body… And suppose… just suppose… a young girl’s hand reached out in that darkness and took mine?
The cover design and blurb also hint at grotesque carnival horror, with its’ terrified pneumatic red head asking ‘Who dares enter the Fun House of Fear?’ but the book itself is less American Horror Story and more Scooby-Doo.
Using the same narrative structure as ‘The Body’ (the only other work of Kings that I have read), a writer, Devin Jones, looks back at the summer of 1973 when, working his way through college and trying to get over the loss of his first love, he takes a summer job at the Joyland amusement park. The park, however, boasts its own ghost, Linda Gray, who was murdered in the Horror House and whose killer has never been found. For Devin, the ghost is a source of distraction and intrigue and with the help of his friend Erin – Nancy Drew to his Hardy Boy – they start to look into what happened and try and unmask the killer.
Despite the premise, Joyland reads more like a coming-of-age novel than anything else as Devin remembers the summer where he lost his virginity, discovered himself and learned how painful and short life can be. He seems to be looking back on that summer as if by making sense of what happened then, he can make sense of where his life is now.
When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It’s only when you get to twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure. By the time you’re sixty, take it from me, you’re fucking lost.
There are a few chills for sure, but more in the manner of a ghost story told by kids around a campfire than anything seriously frightening. King seems to be going for tone rather that plot, which is probably a good thing as the plot itself is slight.
This central mystery – the carnival killer who may still be lurking in plain sight – contains the promise of a good old-fashioned crime thriller, but it’s weighed down slightly by a clairvoyant subplot that doesn’t add much to the story other than being a convenient deus ex machina to tie everything neatly up at the end.
What elevates this rather standard thriller fare is King’s obvious affection for the life and language of the old-fashioned carnival. Dev comes to learn that a ride is a ‘spree’ and the visitors are ‘conies’,
I learned the Talk; I learned the geography, both above and below ground; I learned how to run a joint, take over a shy, and award plushies to good looking points.
A lot of the enjoyment of the book is being immersed in this life of old school hucksterism, a life that King seems to be lamenting as the cheap thrills (not unlike those found in pulp fiction) give way to the Disney-fication of family entertainment. There is a real sense of place and nostalgia and King has clearly done his homework. This Joyland is not the terrifying nightmare suggested by the book’s cover, but a warm, familial community that takes our narrator to its worn out heart. The characters are pure pulp though, Devin is bland but good (saving not one life, but two in the course of the book), the women are all beautiful and most characters can be summed up in a couple of words – the quirky landlady, the clairvoyant with a heart and the sweet but terminally ill boy and the heartless ex-girlfriend.
For me, Joyland was a quick read bringing simple pleasures. It wasn’t complicated. I read on simply to find out who killed Linda Grey, the poor ghostly girl in the Horror House. There is the obligatory red herring but King has a great knack for keeping those pages turning. The final showdown on the Ferris Wheel smacks of screenplay (I’m sure at this point it is being made into a movie?) and is indeed dramatic, but any tension was slightly lost due to the fact that we know Devin must survive to narrate the tale.
For me, the book was a little like candy floss you might eat at an amusement park – sweet and fun but not really very substantial. There were no shrieks of horror and no chills, but the process of reading it was pleasant enough. Joyland wouldn’t put me off reading more King (which is good as there are a few more in the 746) but it just left me wanting something more.
I read this as part of my RIP IX challenge, which seems a bit of a cheat as it wasn’t a particularly frightening read!
Are you a King fan? Have I been unduly harsh about Joyland? Which King books would you recommend for scares and thrills?
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!