Stephen King may be known as the Master of the Macabre, but many people forget that he can be equally skilled when it comes to drama and crime fiction: I’m talking The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (from his Four Seasons series). There have been a couple of hits and misses, like the lacklustre Mr Mercedes, but I’m happy to declare Joyland, which I picked up recently, a good read.
The year is 1973. Fresh out of school, 21-year-old Devin Jones takes on a temporary summer job at the Joyland Amusement Park in North Carolina while attempting to get his mind off his ex, who recently dumped him after moving away for her studies. Jones befriends two other summer hires, Tom and Erin, and settle into ‘carny’ life. Devin is piqued by the mystery of a purported haunting in the Horror House – that of the spirit of a young girl who had her throat slit while in the ride with her ‘boyfriend’, suspected to be a serial killer who had preyed on several victims. He befriends the psychic resident fortune teller Madam Rosetta, who tells him that he will meet two children that summer who will change his life, and that one of them has the Sight. Shortly after, Devin rescues a girl with a red hat, as per Rosetta’s prediction, from choking, and is lauded as the local town hero. This bolsters his decision to remain at Joyland as a permanent employee after the rest of the summer hires are gone.
During this time he becomes close to a standoffish woman named Annie and her terminally ill son Mike – the second child in Rosetta’s prediction, who is gifted with the Sight. Mike wishes to go to Joyland for the first and last time before he dies, not just for himself but also to ‘free’ the spirit of the trapped ghost in the Horror House – a wish that Devin managed to grant, thanks to him being in the good books with the park’s bosses. Mike’s presence helps free the ghost. Devin, who still had an interest in finding out the truth of the murder, returns home and pores over evidence and research presented by Erin, whom he had enlisted for help earlier to investigate the case. It then hits Devin who the killer is – but of course, the latter is always one step ahead…
Joyland isn’t your typical horror novel. It leans toward drama, albeit with supernatural elements – a ghost, a boy with the sight, and a serial killer. It is also very much about young love and the vagaries of youth. Devin was in love with his ex, convinced that he was going to marry her someday and have kids with a suburban job and a happy life, but it was not to be. How many times have we, ourselves, been let down by people we thought we loved and who loved us? The way Devin spiralled into a depression, throwing himself into work during the day while listening to suicidal songs at night, reminded me of my own experiences. The slow way he finds joy in his newfound carny work, the support given by his friends and the way he discovers his sense of purpose is beautifully written and evokes a feeling of nostalgia. His interactions with Annie and Mike are particularly touching: the way a simple desire to do good by two people he met on his way to work blossoms into a friendship. How the Mother and Son opened their hearts to him, and vice versa. It was all a wistful read, until the grand finale of catching WhoDunnit. At that point, the reader is pleasantly surprised by the twist in plot, but it would have been good enough on its own without the horror plot thrown in. That being said, I felt the story was too slow at times, which isn’t what I’m used to with a King novel. For that reason, I’d give it a …