Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland book cover
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Rating 9.0/10
When I was twenty one I had a very good year

My lady and I decided to take a break from our Sanderson odyssey and so for our next cooperative adventure in reading she suggested Joyland, a surprisingly gentle story; especially as compared to much of King’s other work.

Joyland is the tale of 21 year old Devin Jones. After his girlfriend Wendy breaks his heart with a casual “I think we need to spend time apart”, Devin decides to spend the summer of 1973 working at the amusement park Joyland, a small but highly colourful operation in the state of Carolina which holds on to some of the old American Carny traditions and lingo.

Devin learns to talk the talk, makes good friends with some of his fellow greenies (as new summer workers are dubbed and gradually overcomes his heartache, confronting ghosts, finding romance, bringing joy to a dying child, and tracking down a serial killer along the way.

One of the most unique things about Joyland, and one thing which makes it stand out among King’s other work is its characters.

The supernatural elements here are minimal in the extreme, indeed in many ways Joyland reads far more as a coming of age story and character and relationship novel than any kind of speculative fiction; much less King’s usual brand of horror.

Possibly because of this change in focus; Joyland features some of the most engaging characters King has ever written.

Devin himself is a surprisingly likable protagonist, indeed he’s that rare thing in literature someone who is just a really nice guy.

The supporting players are similarly both colourful and engaging, from the rhyming patter man Lane Hardy, to Devin’s manager the surprisingly wise Fred Dean. One character I particularly appreciated was Rozzy Gold aka Madam Fortuna, a fake fortune teller (complete with overdone Gipsy costume and bad Romanian accent), who not only happens to be just that little bit psychic and so eerily right in her predictions some of the time, but is also a straight laced and surprisingly kindly person into the bargain.

It is far more difficult in some ways to create likeable characters than dislikeable ones, and while virtuous heroes who would sacrifice themselves for the fate of the world, or anguish filled arseholes who are only being gits because of some latent trauma are ten a penny, people who are simply decent are surprisingly rare. Here King not only manages both tricks with Protagonist and supporting players alike, but still manages to keep his characters both interesting and engaging.

Part of the reason he is so successful is undoubtedly due to his writing style. The book is told in the first person from the perspective of an older Devin looking back on what is clearly one of the high points of his life. Far from getting bogged down in multiple perspectives and revelling in dirty digressions as many of King’s earlier works did; the style in Joyland is spare, almost plain. Yet King peppers his prose with little details, piquant turns of phrase and highlights of light and colour. From the (admittedly mostly made up), Carny lingo, to the mix of immediate experience and realism, the style is truly engaging.

I can think of few other writers who could grab my attention by a description of the main character “Wearing the fur” aka dressing up as Joyland’s mascot, Howie the Happy Hound and dancing to prevent a bunch of toddlers from crying, yet risking literal heat stroke through the weight of the costume in the process and feeling both proud of their accomplishment, and a wee bit embarrassed.

This stylistic care makes many incidents which in other hands would be just filler far more telling, such as a brief description of Devin being slaughtered in a scrabble game by his landlady, or Devin’s rather wry recollection of the time he spent in nocturnal agonising over his break up (complete with records by the Doors, not to mention Pink Floyd on hand).

King’s style is also notable for what is undoubtedly the most quirky, amusing and indeed decent character in the book, Joyland itself. Overly cute and demanding in the summer yet full of charm and personality, melancholy and mysterious in the autumn yet with hidden secrets and past, Joyland in many ways feels more like its own fantastic world totally cut off from our own, and as a lover of fantastic worlds it was one I was definitely pleased to visit.

For all of this positivity however, like any book Joyland still had its issues.

One of these is the progression of its plot.

Though a short book at eleven hours, Joyland for much of its length does not so much progress as saunter. True, King’s colourful style gives plenty to see along the way, from the genuinely funny antics of Devin as Howie to the part scary, part embarrassed look at Joyland’s Horror House. However in terms of actual incidents, events or incites that move the plot forward the pace remains rather leisurely. For a basic relationship story this would be fine, especially considering King’s masterful style, accept that part of the plot involves the ghost of a murdered girl and the mystery surrounding her killer. This mystery seemed more to hover around the flow of the story than be a solid part of it, indeed when describing Joyland to me my lady actually wondered if King just inserted the ghost and murder out of duty to his horror fans.

That being said, once King did get around to pointing out a direction, he is able to misdirect at least partially, though some of his attempts at authorial obfuscation were a little heavy handed.

One plot element which worked exceptionally well is Devin’s acquaintance with Mike Ross, a boy dying of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and his mother Annie. Here King did something I have great respect for. He wrote a plotline in which Devin and the park staff attempt to give Mike, a likable intelligent terminally ill child one last hurrah at Joyland, and managed to make it touching, without ever once going near the saccharine.

Maybe it was the fact that he did not flinch at a real depiction of how nasty Duchenne is, or maybe it was that he never forced the issue or attempted to tell us (even as part of Devin’s recollections), how wonderful Mike was. Either way, this was a truly incredible piece of writing and likely only one that an experienced author could have pulled off quite so successfully.

Unfortunately, King did make one minor misstep with Annie, Mike’s mother, who goes from hostile, overburdened and overprotective to friendly and welcoming in a rather explosive fashion.

Then again, said change did occur after a heavily emotional moment, though whether said moment would’ve made for quite such a major personality change I am not sure.

With Annie however, King does manage to do something else astounding and feature one of his short, immediate one night relationships, yet one based far more on mutual love and gentleness than randomly arising passions or simply the author’s need for a graphic scene (indeed the description of Annie gently guiding Devin through the loss of his virginity was quite affecting). This is a real contrast to some of the other King flings I’ve noticed, such as the random, emotionally empty extra marital affair featured in The Mist.

One other minor problem I had was with Devin’s friend Erin, who, though firmly not Devin’s girlfriend seemingly had to be attracted to him anyway. I don’t know if King is subscribing to the When Harry Met Sally principle, namely the idea men and women can’t be friends without some sort of attraction, (an idea as detestable as the film it comes from), but as a straight man who has many female friends this is something I would have definitely done without.

The books ending was for the most part extremely satisfying, though I can’t deny that some elements resolved better than others.

Devin’s growth as a character, as well as the conflicts of some secondary characters were realized extremely well, however the murdered girl’s ghost ended up as something of a damp squib.

Then again, one other supernatural element of the book’s plot and how it tied in to the fate of a different character made for a very nice twist, revealing an extra dimension to one of the secondary cast.

The serial killer plotline did lead to a climactic confrontation with a nicely straight forward solution, I particularly liked the fact that most of the cast were so likable you genuinely worried which of the suspects would turn out to be the killer.

From the admittedly brief impression I’ve got of Joyland through a bit of judicious internet poking, it seems that reactions to the book have generally fallen into three camps. Fluffy but good, fluffy and terrible, or just fluffy!

This I find more than a little odd. True some of its very few fantasy elements such as its ghosts were slightly lacklustre, but the handling of its really fantastic elements, the colourful setting, the well put together characters and the books tone and style were quite exceptional.

If you are only interested in King as a horror writer, or books where everyone is an edgy anxt ridden arse hole, Joyland is not the Steven King book for you.

As a vivid telling of a young man’s coming of age however, complete with engaging secondary cast and a colourful setting to explore, Joyland definitely is worth the price of admission.
Dark, 8.9/10

Devin "Dev" Jones is a college student with ambitions to get the girl, a decent job and a place to stay, but back in 1973, his life hadn't gone to plan. Dev believes that Wendy Keegan, his love interest, had never wanted to be involved with him sexually, keeping him hanging on, then announced she was leaving for another job in Boston. That is what made Dev stand back and think he might never get to make-out with the girl he loved. When Wendy leaves, Dev also looks for a job and one lands right in his lap as though it was meant to, straight out of a Carolina Living magazine which advertised Joyland, an old American theme park.

Not knowing whether he would want to be a Happy Helper or not, his soon to be boss lets him have a look around to decide whether he can be of use in one of the positions available. As Dev liked the place and their mascot he takes the job. Dev gets to meet many people who work at Joyland, one being Rozzie Gold, a woman who goes by the name of Madame Fortuna who does her best to tell him his fortune. Of course, no one believes her prophesying, but there is something about what she tells him and she sees danger in his future. Most of the people are decent, even great with him, but when he hears that the fun house is haunted, there might be some truth to the rumour.

Dev thinks he has come to settle in a home away from home, but the revelation of a gruesome murder happening at the fun house ride gives him cause for concern. Most would not be able to contemplate the sort of man who could take his girlfriend on the ride, brutally murder her and leave the scene without a second thought. From what Mrs Shoplaw said, the killer was sly and calculating, he hid his face well with sunglasses, a baseball cap and goatee, and as expected didn't like photographs taken of him. The awful truth is, the killer is still out there and the incident only happened four years ago.

Joyland is King at his best when he writes thrillers. He knows how to set a scene and reel a reader's interest in the story so that they can forget about everything else and concentrate on characters that they just might know: the boss at the theme park, the fortune teller, Wendy Keegan, or dare I say it, someone who is most like the killer - you never know. I like how normal the story begins, then when Dev is at his most relaxed, he finds out a killer is on the loose and he might not only go for slaying women.

If you look at the list of authors who have already written for the Hard Case Crime novels, you might recognise a few names: Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg and Donald E. Westlake, so it's no wonder Stephen King, one of horror's most prolific writers, has decided to write a crime novel in this style. Interesting things that are additional in this novel are a cover by Glen Orbik showing the blonde woman who is in Dev's future, chapter breaks that come with black hearts and it is Illustrated in the classic 'mapbook' style by Susan Hunt Yule and twenty plus illustrations by Robert McGinnis, Mark Summers and Pat Kinsella.
Sandra Scholes, 9/10

I’m a bit late with this review as there are seemingly already thousands covering this book already available online. In fact, I can’t seem to remember a book having not only been so comprehensively covered but also, almost unanimously liked. And Joyland deserves the praise, but for me it has come as little surprise as King’s output over the last 2 to 3 years has been first-rate (The Wind Through the Keyhole and 11.22.63 being most worthy of mention).

But before I continue the review an admission: Stephen King is arguably the author I have enjoyed reading most during my life. From reading It as a teenager, to having just finished Joyland over twenty years later, I have found King to be both a highly skilled writer and one of the very best storytellers, not only of my generation but also of the current one too. Usually at this stage in an author’s career they can be forgiven for having lost that spark of creativity that made their earlier works so special - there are only so many ideas to go around after all – but King is not only writing at the very same high level he achieved in the 19070’s, he may even be writing better stories than ever.

Many King fans will know that he is not shy of writing a tome, and thankfully he has the necessary talent to keep those 1,000 page epics gripping throughout. But it may well be with the short-story format, or as is the case here in Joyland, with the shorter-story, coming in at less than 300 pages, that King is at his best.

The year is 1973 and college student Devin Jones has taken a summer job at Joyland with the hope of forgetting the girl who just broke his heart. But he winds up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder.

King has always done nostalgia well – he seems to be able to write about what if feels like to be a teenager better than a real life teenager themself could. He manages to put all those strong feelings into words, leaving the older reader sighing, “Oh yes, I remember”, and in Joyland he is once again able to lament for a time that has now long-since gone. There is a wistful feel to many of his works and sometimes he may be guilty of being overly-sentimental, but hey, there are worse things he could be.

Joyland is a coming of-age/murder-mystery that will appeal to both teenagers and teenagers-that-once-were. There’s a lovely pulp-fiction feel to the book and the characters are ones that are easily recognisable to us from within our own lives. I doubt this is the first review of Joyland you have read and I would imagine you have already found that it has been enjoyed by thousands. But if you are still hesitating about making it your next read I would like to recommend that you do so, you will not be disappointed.
Floresiensis, 9/10

This Joyland book review was written by and Sandra Scholes and Floresiensis

All reviews for: Hard Case Crime Series

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