Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. It kinda felt like my birthday when I came back from my weeklong excursion to Orlando to find an advance copy of Stephen King’s Joyland waiting for me. It felt doubly odd and awesome (awdsome?) that his book was set in a theme park after I spent 5 straight days jumping between Disney and Universal parks. I was so ready for this!
While the small park depicted in the novel isn’t exactly up to scale with the Disney parks, the way it was described reminded me a lot of one of my childhood haunts, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which cinephiles will remember as the place Keifer Sutherland hung out in The Lost Boys. It was on the beach, played host to a lot of washed up rock stars, had one rickety old wooden rollercoaster (called The Giant Dipper if I’m not mistaken) and the rest of the pier was filled with old carny attractions including smaller spinning barf rides and crooked games involving popping balloons or putting a ring around something in order to win a tiny cheap stuffed animal or a goldfish.
That’s much closer to the Joyland as written by King, except there is a bit of a Disney flair to this park in its old-timey (or carny-from-carny, as King colorfully describes long time park workers) figurehead Mr. Easterbrook. This guy is essentially Joyland’s Walt Disney, the guy who says the first priority is always to sell fun, make magic for the youngsters.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Joyland reads as effortlessly as the best King dramatic fiction of the early ‘80s. It’s a tight 283 pages with a big focus on character. In fact, that’s the majority of the book. It’s a murder mystery whodunit and a ghost story involving a haunted spook ride without being about either of those two things, really. They’re just backdrops to the story of broken-hearted college kid Devin Jones who loses himself working a summer job at a North Carolina amusement park.
Dev doesn’t have psychic powers, he’s not particularly receptive to phantasmic vibrations from the other side, he can’t speak with the dead, he’s not a world class young detective out to solve the big mystery of the murdered girl found in the Horror House years previous to the events of the story… he’s just a newly dumped kid trying to pick up the pieces of his life.
There are other people in this story with the sight, people who see the ghost of the murdered girl, but Devin is very much like how it’d probably be if I existed in a horror story. I’d desperately want to see the ghost, have real evidence of the supernatural, but I’d more than likely be a regular dude that might feel a difference in air temperature, but not see the spirit.
That’d be me in real life and it’d piss me off, but as a reader I loved the choice. Not only does it make Dev far more relatable, but it also allows King to do what he does best and that’s creating characters that somehow feel like they’re your friends.
The heart of the book really kicks in around act 2 when Dev meets Annie and Mike Ross. Mike’s a terribly sick young boy in a wheelchair and Annie is his distrusting mother. Dev takes a shine to Mike right away and I couldn’t help but join him. That’s when I realized King had quietly put me in his lead’s shoes without me realizing it.
While Dev does wallow in his broken-hearted misery from time to time, it’s not overbearing and isn’t really what the story is about. It’s more about how the events of this summer and the new friendships Dev forges helps him grow up and put that adolescent bullshit behind him.
In true pulp fashion, the cover sells the suspense and the murder mystery angle, which his indeed there, but if that’s what you pick up the book for you’ll be disappointed. Both the supernatural and mystery angles all take a backseat and pop up from time to time, but like I mentioned earlier it’s all a backdrop to the late coming-of-age story. It’d be like expecting there to be a ton of horror in The Body because the group of kids are looking for a dead boy. This story very much feels in that vein and would feel right at home on the shelf next to Different Seasons.
Being a pulp novel of course we get to the bottom of the mystery by the end and if I had to pick a weak point in this story it would be the ending. It’s not unsatisfying, it’s well-written and exciting, but it doesn’t quite feel earned. It feels a bit tacked on, like King realized “Oh, shit! I’m pretty much done with the book and I need to pay off the actual murder mystery part of it!”
I liked what he did, I have no problem with the dramatics of it, it’s just jarring, like I missed a chapter or two before things swing into gear and the big bad guy is revealed.
Still, this is probably my favorite King story in recent memory. It’s certainly the one I felt most invested in since he wrapped up his Dark Tower series. That said, I’m dying to see how Doctor Sleep turns out… that’s the one that follows grown up Danny Torrance from The Shining.
If you’ve been a King fan for a while… well, it’s not like you need my recommendation to pick up his new book, but I can say that this feels like King in his comfort zone. It’s Uncle Stevie telling us stories by the fireplace with that familiar old twinkle returning to his eye everytime he gets to the juicy stuff.
Hard Case Crime is putting out Joyland this coming Tuesday. You can pick it up real cheap on Amazon (currently under $8) and I highly recommend it.