I received ‘Joyland’ by Stephen King as a Christmas present rather than selecting it myself, and therefore wasn’t totally sure I’d like the book. I have to say that, in hindsight, I needn’t have worried! The book proved to be one of the best King novels I’ve ever read. I’m not a huge King fan- despite the fact he wrote my favourite book- but I must confess that I couldn’t fault this novel no matter how much I wanted to. Everything about the book, from its characters to its vintage horror feel, struck a chord with me. It’s rare for me to get so excited over a modern novel, especially a King, however this one truly was a thrilling read. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to find an enthralling thriller, or indeed any sort of rollicking good read!
I decided I liked the book’s protagonist Devin Jones almost as soon as I picked up the novel and felt that I could identify with his thoughts and feelings relating to many subjects. I felt as though his introverted personality was both realistic and relatable. Once Jones had taken a job working the ‘carny’ circuit at Joyland I also thoroughly enjoyed reading about his various colleagues. Madam Fortuna was especially amusing! Some of the ‘old-timers’ who helped set the creepy scene for the novel with their creepy tales were particularly intriguing. Jones’ landlady Emmaline Shaw was rather interesting due to the mysterious air her stories created and the fact she had the aura of one who had ‘seen a lot’ over the years. In general, the characters were imperfect and thus believable, something I like in a world filled with young adult literature characters who are all far too good to be true. As the book progresses, we see Jones makes the same mistakes as most twenty one year olds as his sixty year old self (the book’s narrator) concedes that his father was correct about his first girlfriend. The ‘big boss’ of Joyland was also a revelation as he turned out to be a kindly old man rather than the ageing creep one usually finds in horror novels. His employees all had a real, as King would put it, ‘carny’ feel to them that helped add realism to the 70’s amusement park setting. I did feel the concept of ‘Hollywood Girls’- attractive girls paid by Joyland to run around in skimpy dresses and charge tourists for photographing their families- was rather sexist, but accept that employing someone based on looks was acceptable in the 70’s carny circuit. In terms of other events at Joyland, having Jones save the life of a little girl may not have been integral to the plot, but it DID show the character’s kindly side off well. He later showed himself to be an even kinder young man by declining a cheque written for him by the girl’s father. Later, I was moved again by Jones’ friendship with Annie and her disabled son Mike and thought the trip to Joyland he arranged for Mike was especially sweet. I went on to feel sorry for Mike towards the end of the novel.
I must confess that another thing I found surprising about this book was the fact it was actually rather well-written and featured no obvious mistakes. I loved the vivid descriptive passages of both the beach and Joyland that actually managed to make me wish I was there! Part of the reason this book was so hard to put down was its accessible writing style and the fact King created such well-described and realistic characters. The narration was cynical and filled with touches of irony, however it managed to pull off both of these aspects without ever becoming irritating or excessive. To bring a little humour to quite a serious story, the idea of ‘wearing the fur’ was allowed to escalate to a hilarious extent. The lack of political correctness really managed to add to the 70’s setting, and reminded me of tales of that era that my parents have recounted for me. Furthermore, the way Joyland was described reminded me of ‘dodgy’ carnivals I have visited over the years. My only criticism is that some of the ‘carny’ language felt as though it had been a tad overused, but one must remember that King was simply setting the tone for his novel. Despite the slight overuse of some of the language, I still feel that King was very good at writing from a young person’s point of view. I not entirely sure whether this statement is a criticism or not, but at times the description was a little too vivid as it began to feel almost too good to be true!
Of course, one of the things that made ‘Joyland’ so good was the fantastic storyline! The idea of an old-fashioned ghost story was set up brilliantly and the 70’s carny setting simply made the whole affair even creepier. After all, who hasn’t heard a suspect story or two about the local carnival? Another thing that appealed to me was the concept of a summer adventure working at an amusement park, as it tied in well with the concept of the American dream. When Devin’s friend Erin began to investigate a murder that had happened at the park four years previously I found myself willing her to solve the case so I could find out the murderer’s identity for myself. The fact that, over the course of the book, one becomes as interested in catching the killer as the characters helps explore the concept of morbid fascination and curiosity about death. Death itself is a rather prominent theme in this book. The ‘investigation’ held into the murder by Jones and his friends was particularly interesting, and King should be given credit for figuring out a way for the characters to solve the crime based entirely on background evidence. When Jones eventually confronted the murderer the scene was wonderfully tense and came complete with a buildup that played on horror stereotypes such as the car that just won’t start. The identity of the murderer was a shock for me, as it turned out to be the person I least expected. To me, the sign of a good crime novel is one when you don’t even suspect the eventual killer.
“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction”.