On the surface, Stephen King’s latest foray into Titan Book’s Hardcase Crime imprint is the story of a murder mystery inside of a haunted carnival. If one of King’s constant readers or someone just looking for a good summer pot boiler were to pick up this novel and look slightly beneath the grease paint and sawdust surface, that reader would find a coming of age story filled with poignancy, heartbreak and an affirmation of life. The novel defies expectations and proves once again that King is the master, not just of horror, but of the written word and of reader emotions.
Joyland is a horror story, a story of a girl who was violently murdered on a haunted house ride, and whose restless spirit is still within that ride. The novel is filled with the eerie imagery of the carnival, of the shady carnies, and restless nature that accompanies any carnival. When King brings the chills, the novel goes for the jugular. Whenever any of the characters get within sight of the haunted house ride, the novel walks that razor’s edge of creepiness that will make readers flick on an extra light or lock a few doors. But it is so much more to Joyland than just a horror novel. When one pictures what a King novel centered on a haunted carnival would look like, images of Pennywiseesque clowns and killer Christine-like roller coasters spring to mind, but in Joyland, the terrors are much more subtle. Yes, the ghost plays a role, and there is a serial killer lurking about, but the true horrors of the novel are the mundane horrors of life that lurk around every corner. The cancers that can and will take a loved one, the sudden heart attacks or strokes, the stray piece of hot dog waiting to be choked upon. The terrors of Joyland are not as overt as one might expect, which is what makes the book so surprisingly brilliant.
The novel is narrated in the first person by the book’s protagonist, Devin Jones. Jones tells the story in flashback, filling readers in one what happens to the story’s players once they step away from King’s narrative stage. The beautiful girl who turned heads when she was young is wasted away by cancer a few years later, the pending stokes and car accidents that are awaiting in the future. Those are the real dreads of the novel, dwarfing the supernatural presence that lurks in the haunted house. Like most King books, that evil that can be hidden in the hearts of anyone.
Joyland is a crime story, a story of Jones’ quest to find out who committed the murder that tainted his beloved Joyland. It is a well-structured whodunit that drops hints and clues throughout Jones’ journey, both supernatural and concrete. The novel feels like a crime story hidden beneath the façade of a horror story. As Jones winds his way through the world of carnies and rubes (called conies in the book), he learns the secret world of the amusement business. Jones is able to look beneath the veneer of laughter and joy to see the dark heart beneath Joyland, a dark heart that taints a world Jones has come to believe in.
Joyland, most of all, is a coming-of-age story. When readers first meet college student Devin Jones his entire life rotates around his girlfriend, Wendy Keegan. Devin’s life is torn asunder when the inevitable happens, and Wendy dumps him for another man. Having no focus, Devin throws his entire being into his summer job at Joyland, and he finds that the act of giving joy to others, even when he does not feel it himself, comes to define him as a person.
Joyland is a setting just as wholly realized as Derry, Maine or Castle Rock, two locales more than familiar with King’s readers. The carnival is a world unto itself, a world with its own language, expectations, and history. The history of Joyland is just as fascinating as Devin’s quest to find the killer, and while the park does have its ghosts, both literal and figurative, it is a place designed to bring joy into a world of inevitable disease and murder. Joyland is a world that readers will reluctantly want to leave, it is a place that turns Devin into the man that is narrating the tale, and it is place where anyone can come and forget the real world for just a little while.
The main conflict of the novel is Devin struggling to find the carnival killer. It is a quest that keeps him working at carnival beyond summer, and it is a quest that eventually leads him to meeting Annie and Mike. Still reeling from being dumped by Wendy, the last thing Devin is looking for is a romantic encounter. Mike is a boy dying of a real illness, and Annie, his mother, would do anything to keep her son happy and strong till the end. The last thing she is looking for is romantic entanglements, but when Devin befriends the boy and takes him and Annie on a private dream visit to Joyland, Devin learns the true magic of the park beyond the ghosts and the eerily accurate fortune tellers and Annie sees him as an unlikely hero. The moments the book spends examining Joyland through the eyes of Mike, are the moments where Joyland becomes more magical than places like Narnia and Middle Earth. It is a place that works on smoke, mirrors, and the sweet of the workers, but it is a place of magic that can make a dying boy forget his pain. That is the true heart of King’s latest. On the surface, it may be a murder mystery, it may be a horror, but deeper down, the novel is the examination of a place of magic that drowns out all the horror and disease of the real world once Devin, Mike, and Annie explore the midway.
Joyland is a terse, controlled novel about a boy who becomes a man by solving a murder and forgets his own heartache by entering the serious business of making desperate people smile.
Den of Geek Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars