Stephen King's 'Joyland' Review: Summer Fun and Horror

Think of all of your favorite summer memories like summer vacation, fun in the pool for hours, the beach, camping, vacations or staycations, getting close to someone you like, or even getting ready for college (or in my case the military), but add a little splash of ghost story and murder and you’ve got Stephen King’s engrossing new novel, ‘Joyland’ via Titan Books.

‘Joyland’ centers on Devin Jones, affectionately nicknamed “Jonesy” by his fellow carnies, an eclectic bunch of characters who add flavor to the tale.  Dev comes to work at ‘Joyland’ in the summer of 1973 to get away from the monotony of work study in college and girl problems.  His relationship with Wendy Keegan is on the rocks, only he is too afraid and naive to admit it, so while she’s away sowing her wild oats in Boston, Dev joins an army of college students and traveling carnies to work through his issues with himself and hopefully, become the man that Wendy will want to sleep with.

Immediately, Dev learns about Joyland’s own resident ghost who inhabits (where else?) the Horror House.  Whether or not there is a ghost is the last thing on his mind when he finds out that there really was a serial killer of women who claimed Linda Gray as his fifth victim right there on Joyland property.  For the most part, Dev doesn’t get anywhere near the Horror House until it’s almost time for the season to wrap.  He and his friends, Erin and Tom, are thick as thieves and when they decide to see for themselves, one of them comes out changed forever.   What and who really changes Devin is his getting close to Mike, a young boy with Duchenne’s MS and his mother, Annie.  It’s his experience with the unfairness of how death chooses its victims that ultimately makes a man out of Devin Jones.  The fun is in between.

Like all good murder-mysteries, we find out who the killer is and in away it’s somewhat predictable.  I spent my time trying to pinpoint whether or not it was two to three people, but one of them I pinpointed was the actual killer.  In a way, it was kind of saddening, but not entirely unexpected.  For those who are more astute at reading mysteries, it may be even more predictable.

‘Joyland’ isn’t a super complicated book.  It’s a perfect book for reading next to the pool, or lounging outside catching some sun, or at the park.  Dev is all of us, male or female.  His story of wanting to know what was “wrong” with him for Wendy to distance herself is one that we can all identify with.  She was his first love.  Hell, I was nodding my head when Dev states that after all these years (Dev is telling the story from the present day) he still wonders what indeed was wrong with him because it made me remember my very own summer where I was ultimately rebuffed at the tender age of 12.  That’s what ‘Joyland’ does.  It takes you to a time where the only thing that matters is the heat, good friends and family, cooling off and having fun.  It takes you to memories you thought you were too young to be nostalgic for or too old to care about anymore. You instantly see yourself in Dev in many ways, so the character is easy to identify with.

The carnival aspect of ‘Joyland’ is fun too.  You learn the Talk (carny lingo), get to know a little about how Disney changed the theme park landscape not completely for the better, and park employees do really form a family and community unto themselves, always looking out for each other.  The inside and out of the rides and attractions is great for those of us who’ve always gone to theme parks with a little wonder and curiosity as to just how they pull these things together and what happens when the patrons disappear until next year.

The gravitas and the heaviness comes from the deaths in the book and the tragedy surrounding them.  At the end of the day, the horror aspect does send a little prickle up your back, but I’ve read scarier.  Somehow, I don’t think Stephen King set out to write a horror novel, so much as a coming of age tale full of wonder and fright, feelings that can sum up our transition from kids to adults mentally, emotionally and physically (wink wink).

I admit I have not been the biggest fan of King.  I’ve tried reading his books in the past and they weren’t really my thing.  However, this book, as cautious as I was about it, was awesome.  I finished it in a week and put down all other reading to finish it.  Once I got going, I couldn’t stop.  The only thing missing from ‘Joyland’ was the ice cold Cerveza Panama and a pool, but I can hardly fault King for not providing those.

Look for ‘Joyland’ in stores now. Check out this excerpt:

“You’ll have interesting, fruitful lives, my young friends. You’ll do many good things and have many remarkable experiences. But I hope you’ll always look back on your time in Joyland as something special. We don’t sell furniture. We don’t sell cars. We don’t sell land or houses or retirement funds. We have no political agenda. We sell fun. Never forget that. Thank you for your attention. Now go forth.”

GeekMundo Rating: 9 out of 10