Joyland * Stephen King Book Review

I’ve avoided purchasing “Joyland” when it came out for very simple reasons. I thought that a carnival-themed book would include a clown and I loved “IT” too much to want to ruin Pennywise. The joke was on me as “Joyland” was more like a supernatural story with ghosts and a murderer that escaped than a story about a killer carnie.

You’ll have interesting, fruitful lives, my young friends. You’ll do many good things and have many remarkable experiences.

But I hope you’ll always look back on your time in Joyland as something special. We don’t sell furniture. We don’t sell cars.

We don’t sell land or houses or retirement funds. We have no political agenda. We sell fun. Never forget that. Thank you for your attention. Now go forth.

The story

Summer 1973, Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina. Devin Jones is a penniless and broken-hearted student, because his girlfriend has betrayed him. To forget her and earn a few dollars, he decides to accept the job in a fun fair. Having arrived in the amusement park, he is greeted by a colorful as bizarre group of characters: from the strange widow Emmalina Shoplaw who rents a room to the two peers Tom and Erin, students like him and soon inseparable friends; from the ninety-year-old owner of the park to the burglar responsible for the Castello del Brivido. But Dev also discovers that the place hides a terrible secret: in the Castle, in fact, remained the ghost of a girl killed four years earlier. And so, while earning a meager salary by entertaining children with his dog mascot costume, Devin will also have to fight the evil that threatens Heaven’s Bay. And defend the woman for which he had fallen in love for.

The good parts

Dev is the first virgin character of a Stephen King book for whom the virginity is a plot point. The first half of the book which deals with his breakup and heart-ache are wonderfully written and most people who have lost their first love will recognize themselves in the heart-felt lines and feel his anguish. What makes the book even better is the fact that it’s written from Dev’s POV and his words and thoughts make what would be a three-page story plot seem an amazing journey into the mind and soul.

By early September, Heaven Beach was almost completely deserted, which suited my mood. That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too.
People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You’ve heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What’s so sweet about that?

The breakup from Wendy Keegan, the “brunette that is in your past, boy” as the fortune teller tells him, is a classic by-the-numbers breakup. Boy meets girl. Girl wants to wait until marriage to have sex and are dating platonically. Boy moves away for summer job. Girl contacts him less and less. Boy calls girl to find out she had been seeing (and sleeping with) someone else. Boy falls into despair.

Several times we had been very close to “it,” but “it” just never quite happened. She always drew back, and I never pressed her.
God help me, I was being gallant. I have wondered often since what would have changed (for good or for ill) had I not been.
What I know now is that gallant young men rarely get pussy.
Put it on a sampler and hang it in your kitchen .

What makes the book quite interesting is the insight that old age brings show up on some pages. You’re seeing Dev as he was back then but through the prism of a much older Dev, a Dev who has seen life and has gained the much-needed perspective to allow viewing a painful event with some detachment.

The second good part was Joyland. It’s the opposite of Disneyland.

“Too corporate. Too buffed and shiny. So I came back to Joyland a few years ago. Haven’t regretted it. We fly a bit more by the seat of our pants here-the place has a little of the old-time carny flavor. Go on, look around. See what you think. More important, see how you feel.”

Once Dev gets the job, he is put into a dog suit who would cause people to faint in the hot summer days, who would dehydrate and work better than any Weight Watchers diet for anyone who wore it. Dev and Tom and a Hollywood girl called Erin become close friends and that friendship is one that will help him out when a mystery comes into their lives.

Dev hears the story first, but then the other hear it too: a haunted Haunted House where a serial killer had slashed the throat of a young girl. He hears that even Rosalind Gold (Madame Fortuna) refuses to go near the Haunted House and believes the story is real). The landlady of the place he rents confirms the story.
“The name of your supposed ghost is Linda Gray, and she was from Florence. [..] He fed her, then he took her on the Carolina Spin-a slow ride, you know, easy on the digestion-and then he took her into Horror House. They went in together, but only he came out. About halfway along the course of the ride, which takes about nine minutes, he cut her throat and threw her out beside the monorail track the cars run on. Threw her out like a piece of trash. He must have known there’d be a mess, because he was wearing two shirts, and he’d put on a pair of yellow workgloves. They found the top shirt-the one that would have caught most of the blood-about a hundred yards farther along from the body. The gloves a little farther along still.”

He rented the room out for all his years at Joyland and from future Dev we get a glimpse of how it was:

That Joyland room was where I sat up some nights with my stereo turned down low, playing Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, having those occasional thoughts of suicide. They were sophomoric rather than serious, just the fantasies of an over-imaginative young man with a heart condition . . . or so I tell myself now, all these years later, but who really knows?

When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction .

When he starts getting the inklings that she is hiding stuff from him, that she is being evasive and not at all forthcoming, he dismisses it.

She’s nothing to me these days but a scar and a memory, someone who hurt me as young women will hurt young men from time to time. A young woman from another life. Still I can’t help wondering where she was that day. What those things were.

And if it was really Renee St. Clair she was with.

We could argue about what constitutes the creepiest line in pop music, but for me it’s early Beatles-John Lennon, actually-singing I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man. I could tell you I never felt that way about Wendy in the aftermath of the breakup, but it would be a lie. It was never a constant thing, but did I think of her with a certain malevolence in the aftermath of the breakup? Yes. There were long and sleepless nights when I thought she deserved something bad-maybe really bad-to happen to her for the way she hurt me. It dismayed me to think that way, but sometimes I did

As summer moves on, Dev finds he likes working in Joyland and the place offers something to do when things go rough between him and Wendy.

You start to worry, then you start to get it, then you know. Maybe you don’t want to, maybe you think that lovers as well as doctors misdiagnose shit all the time, but in your heart you know.

He saves a kid from chocking and decides to stay on after the summer ends as a carnie to help out and find his feet. His family is understanding and his dad knows that this has all to do with the punch he’d received from breaking up with Wendy and hope that soon he’ll gain some weight, start eating well and maybe find someone else to love.

I don’t think either of them realized, then or all the rest of the summer, how fundamentally the ground under my feet had shifted. How lost I felt. I didn’t want them to !mow. It was more than embarrassing; it seemed shameful. So I made myself smile, raised my own can of suds, and drank.

Joyland was still his salvation. Joyland and soon his neighbours, Annie Ross and her child and his dog.

This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don’t already know that will come to know it. Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun. In exchange for the hard-earned dollars of your customers, you will parcel out happiness. Children will go home and dream of what they saw here and what they did here. I hope you will remember that when the work is hard, as it sometimes will be, or when people are rude, as they often will be, or when you feel your best efforts have gone unappreciated.

Annie Ross and her child make up the second part of the book. It’s a story about God and a preacher and a lost daughter who gives birth to a son with Cerebral Palsy who might not make it to adulthood. It’s a story of shaming and blaming and of a woman taking her child and moving away and loving him and no-one else – at least until she meets Dev.  This story was so heartwarming as the first part of the book was heartbreaking. Dev makes a bond with the sick and dying child and is able to offer him a wonderful day in the closed amusement park that he will never forget. One of those memories that will stay with you when all the other things go away or are too bad to think about.

The last part of the book is where all the different parts come together and the murdered is revealed, Dev gets laid (you go boy!) and a ghost offers some help with the capture of a wanted killer.

I’m not going to spoil it for you but it’s definitely a scary climax to a placid and rolling story.


The bad parts:

The ending was a bit “real”. Dev did not stay in the amusement business. Dev did not stay with Annie. Dev got a job and moved on and had a different girlfriend. But Annie did call Dev when Mike died and he did cry. He also cried when his former boss passed on and we never know what became of Wendy. I suppose it’s a good ending but still, it felt detached.

Rating: 4.5/5


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