Joyland – Stephen King
Hard Case Crime, 288 pages
» Buy it locally at Nightbird Books
In the Fall of 1973, Devin Jones still hadn’t done “it” with his girlfriend Wendy Keegan. Devin’s life was about to change dramatically. Wendy would leave him, and he was about to get a job at Joyland, North Carolina’s low rent version of Disney Land. Devin tells us his story from present day, and gracefully states “when it comes to the past-everyone writes fiction”.
Four years before Devin’s time at Joyland there was a murder inside the Horror House ride. Linda Gray sits down for the ride with an unknown man, and does not come out. In the darkness and commotion of Horror House, her neck is slit with a razor blade and her body is dumped inside the ride. Her murderer was wearing a hat, gloves, and another shirt that he left with Gray’s body, soaked in blood. He was planning on leaving alone. He may have killed other girls before Gray and he may kill again. The ghost of Linda Gray is known to haunt Horror House.
At Joyland, Devin makes new friends but laments the loss of his first love. Devin is on a break from college and learns the secrets of the “amusement business”, including “the talk” of Carny life, and what it means to be “carny from carny”. He learns about the murder and feels that ‘something” is still lost at Horror House. Devin’s fortune is read his first day at Joyland and he is foretold – “You are on the edge of great sorrow, and, perhaps, danger.”
At 288 pages, Joyland is a minor work by Stephen King’s own colossal standards. But a minor work by King is still leaps and bounds ahead of his legions of imitators. King’s storytelling here is vivid and compassionate, you feel for Devin, and you are scared for him. As always, King tells us the small things, so his characters come out of the pages in living, breathing detail. In Joyland, King lets the murder mystery and ghost story drift to the periphery, and you realize that the book is a coming-of-age tale in which the real killer is time. You can feel the ache of nostalgia, the pains of lost love, and the dread of discovering the Funhouse Killer. It’s a treat to learn Carny-speak, and as Devin’s bosses tell him the point of Joyland is to “amuse them” (them being rubes). As a reader, Stephen King has been amusing me for my entire life, and Joyland is another page turner from the master.