Joyland by Stephen King science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJoyland by Stephen King

Devin Jones is nearing the end of his sophomore year of college when he signs on for a summer job at Joyland in Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina in 1973. Joyland is an old-fashioned amusement park, not anything near as big as a Six Flags and definitely not anything like a Disney park. It’s staffed by a changing cast of college kids every summer, but has a backbone of old carnie folk, including Lane Hardy, who runs the Carolina Spin, that is, the ferris wheel, and Rosalind Gold, who acts the part of Madame Fortuna and thinks she might have the gift of the sight in real life. The park’s mascot is Howie the Happy Hound, modeled after a dog the owner of the park had as a boy, and his visage graces everyone’s sun visor and the bags in which visitors receive the trinkets they buy. And “the wearing of the fur” is a tradition for the college kids. You probably know what that means if you’ve ever been to an amusement park, but maybe when you read about it here, it will come as a surprise, as it does to Dev the first time he pulls that duty.

The park also comes outfitted with a ghost. The funhouse, called Horror House, is haunted by a young woman who was murdered there four years earlier, her throat slashed and her body thrown out of the car. People rode past her all day and never noticed her body; either it was too dark, or they thought it was part of the show. The murderer dispatched a number of other women in a similar manner at other spots around the country. There are few clues to his identity, among them a few photographs taken by the park’s Hollywood Girls, pretty college women wearing short green skirts and wielding black and white cameras. Dev isn’t sure he believes in ghosts, but the story intrigues him, and, as the year progresses, comes to dominate his thoughts.

But the mystery isn’t what Dev’s summer is really about. His girlfriend dumps him when he’s been on the job for just a few weeks — the first girl he was ever serious about, the first girl with whom he was ever really in love. Dev goes into a steep decline, to the point of thinking about committing suicide. “Love leaves scars,” the adult Dev tells us as he narrates the story of that summer. His friends, college students his own age who have also signed up for a summer trying to make little kids happy, worry about him, but it’s not until Madame Fortuna gives him a good talking-to that he starts eating again. And perhaps it’s that little extra bit of attention a well-fed body has that allows Dev to do something extraordinary when a park guest is in trouble. We learn not only about Dev’s smarts, but also about the goodness of his heart.

And so the summer goes, a true growing-up experience for Dev. It’s a bittersweet memory for the older man telling us the story 40 years later, but it’s a warm, sentimental story for us readers. This story is pure King, through and through, but it nonetheless made me think of Ray Bradbury’s carnival tales, like Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the coming of age tales told by Robert McCammon in Boy’s Life and Dan Simmons in Summer of Night, and even King’s own “The Body,” for all that those tales are about younger boys than Dev. This story has the same feel of friendship; a small, tight-knit community; and learning hard truths lurking underneath.

This novel is one of King’s finer efforts. King melds the supernatural with a mystery, but the novel is really about Dev finding out who he is and what he’s capable of. It tugs at the heartstrings without diving into melodrama. It’s the kind of story that you remember years later with great fondness, stored in the same memory bin as your memories of your first summer job and your best sweetheart. King’s extraordinary talent is evident on every page.

~Terry Weyna

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI’m a sucker for Stephen King it seems. No matter the topic, the fright-factor, nor the era: I’m a sucker for Stephen King.

His short crime-noir Joyland is a wonderful read. Always so evocative of place, time, and his characters’ life-stage, King has built another undeniably real, and relatable world in an early 70’s down-stage amusement park.

The story zeroes in on a rising college senior who’s spending his summer working at Joyland, a small Carolina coastal amusement park, that’s more akin to traveling town carnival than a Disney theme park.

Devin Jones is an aspiring writer (quite a surprise, right?). Reflecting on what was simultaneously the best and worst summer of his life, he comments

When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It’s only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirety sure.

King bakes a supernatural mystery within a softer, larger murder mystery – several years ago, a young woman was killed during a ride in Joyland’s haunted house. The whodunit is interesting, but merely drives Jones’ ride to self-realization and his emotional growth from young man to adult.

The story contains love, and lost love: both precisely described with King’s astute insight and subtle hand. And he still writes a child’s perspective that connects with me like no other author.

He’s known as a ‘horror’ writer, but the truth is, King writes about human nature. The horror, the mystery, the crime, are simply the vehicle to convey what makes us human, and he does so in a way that creates an intimate relationship between author, reader, and character.

I thoroughly enjoyed Joyland… the conclusion to the murder-mystery itself ends a little flat, but the rest of the story more than makes up for it.

~Jason Golomb


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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  • Jason Golomb

    JASON GOLOMB graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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