It’s been years, no, decades, since I read Stephen King. But there was something about the cover (which as you can tell from its retro art is King’s ode to pulp crime novels) or the write-ups that made me read this book. And I am so glad I did. It’s perfect summer reading, even if you don’t have a beach within hundreds of miles (which I don’t).
Joyland is King’s story about the adventures of a 21-year-old college boy in a haunted Southern amusement park as he attempts to overcome the crushing blow of his first experience with heartbreak. The book delivers chills, not horror, and could be a ghost story told while toasting marshmallows around a fire. It’s mock-Gothic Americana whose tone is more important than its plot, mostly because it barely has a plot, and only a soupçon of insubstantial menace. For most of the book, there’s not even a villain, just a sense of carnival sideshow creepiness that takes the place of a specific evil.
Devin narrates the story, reflecting on the summer of 1973, an immemorial year for him, as Poe might put it, which infuses the story with thoughtful moments of old-age wisdom. I could so relate to all the cultural references – I was 21 in 1971, my own most immemorial year. And, while I didn’t work at an amusement park (Six Flags over Texas is a stone’s throw from me), I was a tour guide at our state capital in Austin. We didn’t exactly sell fun like Joyland does, but we tried, and we were a tight group that explored what 1970 and 1971 had to offer. I listened to the Doors like Devin – even saw them in 1968 – but I never got into Pink Floyd. Maybe this is one reason King is so popular. He is able to tap into certain aspects of life that apply to almost everyone. King’s unique brand of horror has always been so potent because it has an underlying sense of humanity.
This is a coming-of-age novel, bittersweet as they all are, mixed in with a crime novel and a horror story – and it undeniably works. King was born in 1947, so the ages don’t match, but numbers don’t matter. You can tell from the get-go that Devin is Stephen King. It is a personal tale that explores the importance of love, loss, and death. One line leapt out at me: “When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.” I have been in contact with my 1971 summer love, and we have similar, but not identical memories. We all have our own perspective of any event; which is true and which is illusion?
At Joyland, Devin makes friends with Tom Kennedy and Erin Cook, also summer hires at Joyland, which years before had been the scene of the murder of a young woman named Linda Gray whose ghost is said to be seen at the Horror House. He also befriends a young boy, named Mike Ross and his mother, Annie. Their lives all become interwoven when Devin and Erin decide to investigate the mystery of Linda Gray’s unsolved murder by the “Carny Killer” after Tom has a vision in the Horror House he won’t discuss.
Joyland is a quaint, old-fashioned establishment that offers rickety rides, rigged games of skill, and other lurid but finally tame diversions. Between the lines is an implied critique of the sanitized, corporate, Disney-style amusements that have supplanted the grass-roots titillations of an earlier, cruder era. Through Devin, who senses that Joyland’s days are numbered, King is lamenting the disappearance of a certain type of forthright hucksterism not all that different in spirit from pulp fiction.
As Devin learns from the masters of the trade, the carny-from-carny folk, the naive seductions of the carnival take advantage of the human desire to be honestly manipulated and charmingly ripped off. Devin discovers that his special talent is cheering up the kiddies, especially while costumed as a huge dog, which, in the Joyland parlance, is known as “wearing the fur.” It’s a noble calling, as Devin’s boss explains to him in a rather wooden speech that might be King’s own manifesto as writer: “This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. . . . Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun.”
Joyland is a far gentler, deeper, more thoughtful book than the one it masquerades as. Joyland is a coming of age story that teaches us to appreciate those special moments in our lives because “some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few”. King leaves you with the powerful idea that even though the day will come that we are all forced to meet our maker, there’s something undeniably beautiful about that.
For all that, it is good fun. The novel is like a plump wad of cotton candy; it fills the mouth with fluffy sweetness that quickly dissolves when the reader starts to chew. That’s by design. King’s ambition this time around isn’t to snatch us and hold us in his grasp but to loft us up high, then briskly set us down the way a Ferris wheel does. Or a first love. Joyland comes with all the horror trappings for which Stephen King is known: a sinister carnival, a grisly unsolved murder, a haunted ride, but much, much more.