That’s the phrase you’ll see plastered across the cover of the latest novel from Stephen King: Joyland, also known as “Hard Case Crime #112.” The phrase floats just beneath a brightly-lit carnival midway, and just to the right of buxom redhead, her hand clutching an old-timey camera, her mouth open in an “O” of surprise….or shock…or fear. It might give you the idea that between these covers lies a typical King horror tale, but that’s just carney talk. There is horror in there, but it’s mostly window dressing. To see what’s really going on, you’ll have to pony up a few bucks and step inside.
Devin Jones is 21 years old. He’s finished his second year of college, he’s head-over-heels in love, and in the summer of 1973 he’s taken a job working at a North Carolina amusement park called Joyland. He’s taken the job because his girl, Wendy, took an off-campus job and he doesn’t want to spend the summer mooning around campus without her. Devin doesn’t it know it at the time, but his relationship with Wendy is already over. It’s the job at Joyland that will get him through the first real heartbreak of his life; the job, the friends he makes, and the mystery of a girl named Linda Gray, who was murdered in the Joyland funhouse years ago – murdered and dumped beside its twisty tracks, after which her killer rode out into the bright Carolina sunshine and walked away, never to be found.
While it’s said that Linda Gray’s ghost haunts the funhouse, the only thing haunting Devin – Dev, to his friends, and thanks to King’s uncanny ability to mold characters that feel alive out of thin air and imagination, you’ll feel like he’s a friend by the time you reach Joyland‘s end – is his broken heart. While he loves his job and enjoys the company of new pals Tom Kennedy and Erin Cook, he spends most of his free time drowning his sorrows in moody music (“The End,” by The Doors, is a particular favorite) and books by Tolkien. There’s also the matter of the young boy in the wheelchair and his mother, but (aside from a quick glimpse in the novel’s opening pages) they arrive later in the story.
Joyland sees King working some of his classic elements, and working them to perfection. There’s the aforementioned character work – always the biggest draw in a King book, as far as I’m concerned. In addition to bringing characters to life he’s a master at bringing places to life, and Joyland, the park, fairly hums with it. Sure, it’s one of those places where if you look too close (especially in the daylight) you’ll see the cracked and peeling paint, the rust, the toll taken by years of rube sweat and salt air. But in King’s hands, and under the eye of its proprietor, Bradley Easterbrook, Joyland feels like the best place on earth, a place where fun is sold in cheap, generous handfuls. One of the most refreshing things about the book is the way that Dev, Tom and Erin fall under its spell. These are young people working a summer job, and it would have been easy to have at least one of them take a cynical view of the park and its patrons, but none of the trio do. Dev falls the hardest, but they all love the place and what they do. Even the life-long carnies that are the lifeblood of Joyland seem to be boosted by the work instead of worn down by it.
Joyland is one of those books that will invite re-reads down the line. Yeah, you’ll know “whodunit,” but it won’t matter – it’s the time, the place, and the people you’ll want to revisit, not the mystery. Just like the park in which it’s set, Joyland the novel is a wonderful place to while away a handful of summer hours.