The first book I ever got as a present was a novel by Stephen King. I was 13. Having heard so much about the man and being secretly (13 was that sort of age) afraid of the dark, I let fear run ahead of me and apprehended every page with heavy, half-excited trepidation. As King himself puts it in this new book, “wanting it to happen, hoping it wouldn’t”. And it didn’t. Well, technically it did, but I wasn’t moved. By page 30, I was bored. By page 50, I stopped reading altogether. Could be the intriguing vagueness of my expectations, of course, but in the end what made the book’s horror so bland and ineffective was its overstated physical nature. Like those badly dated Elm Street films, it left little room for imagination.
Joyland is an amusement park in North Carolina where a 21-year-old Devin Jones will work for the summer of 1973. He lands a job as a carny and gets himself into a whole new world with its new people, language and, yes, ghosts. One in particular – that of a young girl murdered several years ago in the park’s horror house. Devin doesn’t take the job for the money; what he really needs is to get away and over a certain girl.
Few can beat Stephen King in setting the scene and creating a world that, despite being so sinister and full of suspense, feels somewhat wickedly attractive and almost warm. What does Devin Jones see? There’s a lonely beach with a woman, a dog and a boy in a wheelchair. There’s wind. There’s Howie the dog, the furry symbol of Joyland that every carny has to impersonate. There are swarms of small kids with hot dogs. There are sweet and friendly people like his landlady and his two new friends, and then there are bastards and eccentrics, both amusing and not so much. There’s a girl in red. There’s an old mystery that some discuss in hushed tones and some dismiss as complete bullshit. It’s a beautiful, beautifully written book that knows what it’s doing and does it expertly. The vibe is terrific. I could envision a great film.
Despite a few brushes with the supernatural, Joyland reads like a murder mystery and even an old-fashioned detective story. What it really is, though, is a coming-of-age tale that doesn’t so much tell you things as lets you into that world. The transition is not smooth (is it ever?), and Devin Jones actually shares the experience with you. It is totally worth it. Joyland is not quite a classic, but what a gripping, elegant little powerhouse of a novel.