Dressed in a retro/classic pulp cover, Joyland offers a tale that’s far beyond Stephen King’s usual horror tropes and terrorizing monsters. Rather, Joyland marks a departure (and a satisfying one) somewhat similar to King’s other books such as Hearts in Atlantis or Stand by Me; highly recommended reads as well. That’s not to say Joyland is completely absent of these elements, they just aren’t the centerpiece in a story that weaves a coming-of-age narrative of love and heartbreak with mystery. I know, it seems I’ve already made my concluding comments regarding Joyland within the first paragraph, but I do so to point out, as I did in my opening line, to not let the book’s cover define the story within its’ pages.
As the cover’s subtext asks its’ readers, “Who dares enters the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR”, the context suggests a terrifying read filled with horror clichés and cheesy one-liners. But on the contrary, Joyland is one man’s personal journey driven by heartbreak in the wake of his adult years to come. Devin Jones, the story’s protagonist, is well within his 60’s as he narrates the Summer of 1973, when the twenty-one year old “Jonesy” picks up work at an amusement park (Joyland) in Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina in order to help cope with a recent breakup.
During his four month tenure as a Joyland employee, Devin is told by the park’s psychic fortuneteller, Madam Fortuna, that the local haunted house exhibit, Funhouse of Fear, is haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray; the victim of a murder whose killer is still on the loose. Throughout the daily workings in Joyland, Devon comes to meet 10-year old Mike Ross; whose physical impairments (cause by muscular dystrophy, AKA MD) lead to borrowed time on Earth. His mother, Annie Ross, is not only faced with the mortally of her only child, but the realization to accept that any fond experiences with her son could be their last one together. Mike, as it’s revealed rather quickly, displays the gift of clairvoyance; somewhat similar to the “shine” in various Stephen King novels. This is where the connection to Mike and Linda Gray at Funhouse of Fear come together.
There is an emotional investment that I found to be quite sincere when it came to the characters in Joyland. Devin Jones’ heartbreak leads him on a personal journey of self discovery, where through his newfound friendships and unique experiences leads him to overcome many of the personal demons that we can relate to. I found myself relating to Devin’s own experiences and feelings through my personal heartbreaks and self loathing in my youth; character trope or not, Devin Jones is a likable protagonist. Stephen King’s ability to deliver an emotional narrative of a broken, vulnerable young Devin, was heartfelt, and empathizing didn’t feel like a chore. Devin’s friendships with Erin and Tom play an essential role in Joyland and, although not a centerpiece in the novel, does drive the narrative forward as it helps Devin mature as a young adult; as it is also a character driven story.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Joyland was King’s attention to detail within the unique world of the amusement park community. Devin establishes close friendships and rapport with the amusement park staff, picking up peculiar habits, lingo, and surprising talent to entertain children as the park’s mascot, Howie the Happy Hound.
Although the supernatural and thriller elements lie below the surface of Joyland, ultimately, this is a novel of growth and moving beyond love and loss; not ignoring it. The heartbreaks and struggles are parallel to the many of our very own. Joyland is much more thoughtful and profound than its’ cover leads it to believe and Stephen King has once again given us a worthwhile read set outside the boundaries of terror; even in the Funhouse of Fear. Thanks for reading.