Book Review: Stephen King’s ‘Joyland’

Stephen King's JoylandStephen King says The Shining was originally intended to take place in an amusement park but there weren’t enough places to trap people. Instead he moved it to a remote mountain inn. Forty years and 43 books later, King has released Joyland, a coming of age story with a crime spin, set in a seaside North Carolina theme park in the 70s.

It’s an atmospheric journey to the recent past, rich with period details, heavy with the sights, sounds and feel of the day. It is simply and effectively written and moves seamlessly between the real world, the ghost world, first love, innocence, world weariness and death. It takes its time; there was no social media in the 70s and that’s where King plants us. People talked and got together and used the telephone occasionally. It’s retro slow.

Dev is a university student who’s just been dumped by his ideal woman, Wendy, whose loss he feels the rest of his life. He is in his sixties as he writes his story, a cancer survivor still thinking of her. He remembers heading off to Joyland for a summer job when she said goodbye and how he’d play sombre rock music in the seaside boarding house.

Dev was a general carny assistant with a side of Howie the Happy Hound Dog. He “wore the fur”, a sweltering costume to entertain young visitors. Having loving contact with wee ones helped heal his heart a little. Much of the book is devoted to daily carny life which, seen through Dev’s eyes, takes on a kind of summer magic.

The carny lingo, which King admits is part authentic and part made up, is mysterious and fun. But the crux of the story is Dev’s reaction to this interesting new life he’s leading. It’s richly detailed and strangely familiar, thanks to King’s universal style.

The Joyland carny folk are exotic. There are midway draggers, simp-hoisters, ride jockeys, a shape shifting Master of Ceremonies and a fortune teller. The Hollywood Girls wore green dresses and covered the park taking pictures. The shys were little slices of adventure heaven for the kids featuring shooting ranges, cotton candy and hot dogs with fancy names.

But the Joyland experience included the haunted ride. Four years before Dev’s arrival, Linda Grey’s throat was slashed inside the funhouse. The killer was never discovered.

Dev and workmates Erin and Tom think it would be fun to get to solve the mystery, and compile news reports of the time, and sleuth around like Nancy Drew and friends. Their investigation suggests there were more females whose throats were slashed in similar fashion. The deeper they went the more dangerous things got.

King’s novel has precious little horror. There are a couple of scary passages and a mystery to solve, but it’s retro mystery – the jolts-per-second theory of contemporary entertainment wasn’t so widespread in the 70s. It’s slower and plainer than that and no doubt intentionally so – the whole Joyland experience drips with nostalgia and retro-realities. It’s a sweet ride with a wee bit of a chill.

King’s marketing Joyland retro style too. It is only available in book form. The cover is a riff on the old pulp novels, featuring a voluptuous woman and jagged graphic lines and colours. Through and through on every level Joyland is a trip down memory lane. Especially for Dev.

Anne Brodie

About Anne Brodie

Anne Brodie is a freelance film reporter and critic.