The thing about reading Stephen King novels is that it will always bring about memories of other Stephen King novels. During Mr Mercedes the writer name checked a couple of his most well-known tales by referring to the big screen adaptations of two of his novels, It and Christine. (Fun fact: in my first year of University, I dressed as Christine for Halloween. I taped torches to my legs as headlights. It was fucking amazing.) King has spent years creating an intricate fictional universe where many of his novels can connect with each other. Like watching John Hughes films in the 80s, catching the subtle references to other stories is one of the fun things about reading his books. When I read Revival last year, I was more overjoyed that I should have been to discover a reference to another of his recent works. I think I audibly squeed when a character mentioned a certain North Carolina amusement park: Joyland.
I first read Joyland after I completely fell in love with the cover. I knew very little about the book aside from the fact it was a fucking babe. It didn’t really matter, to be honest, because every time I saw that B movie babe looking at me from the shelf my eagerness to read increased. With it’s pulpy styling, Joyland promised a terrifying but potentially trashy tour of life at the fun fair. For, despite all its quaint ways and quirky characters, Joyland is a fair with a dark secret; something that new recruit, Devin Jones, is eager to get to the bottom of.
A few years before Devin joined the ranks of Joyland’s purveyors of fun, Linda Gray was murdered within the Horror House. They never found the mysterious man who accompanied her on the ride, slit her throat and left her body inside but it is said that her ghost still haunts the park to this day. Recovering from a heartbreak that will continue to haunt Devin into his middle age, the young student becomes entangled in Linda’s story and discovers that she may not be the killers only victim. With the help of his new work friends, Devin begins investigating the gruesome events.
From the look of it, Joyland has all the hallmarks of one of King’s cliché-ridden horror tales: a haunted amusement park, a disabled child with psychic powers, and a crazed killer. However, Joyland isn’t exactly chock-a-block with scares or shocks. For a book that asks it’s readers “who dares enter the Funhouse of Fear?” is really isn’t that fucking fearful. In fact, there isn’t really much of plot to enable King to bring in the frights. The interesting crime mystery that sets Devin’s tale in motion is quickly replaced by an exploration of the paranormal when he meets a young clairvoyant. This change isn’t something likely to put-off the long-term King fans but it just feels a little half-hearted.
What saves Joyland, of course, is King’s mastery of language and his literary tour of the carnival world is a sheer delight. The dialect of the fair’s workers is part invention and part carnival tradition but there can no denying that it is the little details that make the novel. The carnival language that at first seems so jarring soon becomes second-nature as you, along with Devin, become familiar with carnie life. What this novel lacks in a horror-fuelled plot-line it more than makes up for with its insights into the recent history of this new and exciting world. King’s writing opens up Joyland’s rules and language to his readers.
Who are, let’s face it, the reason Joyland is the way is. Rather than not judging a book by its cover, I say Joyland is exactly the kind of book that you should judge by its cover. Placing itself in a certain type of low fiction, it is a short, simple and incredibly readable novel. King isn’t exactly pushing himself as a writer or you as a reader: he’s just creating something that people can and should enjoy. It’s not perfect but it never claims to be.
Joyland won’t necessarily interest readers hoping for sheer terror and villainy. Instead of chills it offers an emotional and interesting coming-of-age tale. King is a master when it comes to characters and he creates a whole host of great ones here. Despite older Devin’s irritating narrative, you find yourself wanting to immerse yourself in his story. It’s the kind of book that would utterly fall apart in the hands of a less skilled writer but King’s firm grasp and love of his material keep things on an even enough keel. Joyland probably won’t stay with you once you close the cover but, from the second you open it, you will want to read it. Then, when you’re done, at least you can delight in how pretty it looks.