The world is altered here and a trek down the midway surrounded by garish sideshows, Ferris wheels and the taunting calls of barkers may easily suggest that there are both thrills and dangers inside those tents.
Stephen King’s Joyland reads like a tribute to the numerous writers who have created a nostalgic world permeated with the smell of popcorn and chili dogs. Instead of a carnival or circus, King’s tale is set in a minor league version of Six Flags. Joyland’s narrator is Devon Jones, a college student who has taken a summer job hoping to forget “the girl who broke his heart.” Instead, he finds himself plunged into an environment that speaks a different language (carnival lingo which often becomes a bit irksome), and where carney veterans observe a strange system of ethics. In time, Devon forms permanent ties of friendship with Joyland’s regulars and even learns to enjoy his primary job, “wearing the fur,” which means that he dons the big, sweaty dog suit of “Howie, the Happy Hound” and cavorts for an audience of adoring children. In fact, if Joyland has a theme, it is Howie, for the image of the dancing hound is everywhere.
Ah, but that isn’t the only image that resides in Joyland. In time, Devon learns that lurking in the House of Horrors where patrons careen through dark tunnels filled with glowing skulls, recorded screams and hysterical laughter, there is a real terror. Bit by bit, Devon hears the grisly tale of Linda Gray, the young girl who was murdered here. From Joyland’s veteran staff, Devon learns that Linda’s terrified soul is still trapped in the House of Horrors, and her killer (who has a penchant for killing young girls in carnivals and theme parks) is still stalking the mirrored halls of the Torture Chamber and the Dungeon, searching for yet another victim.
As any Stephen King fan knows, the author has a preference for tales that feature characters who are blessed (or cursed) with a special talent. Frequently, that gift is some variation of what is called “the shine” or “second sight.” (Remember the kid in The Shining or Christopher Walken in “Dead Zone”?) Joyland’s old midway fortune-teller has a touch of it, as does Devon’s best friend, Tom Kennedy. They can “see” the tortured specter of Linda Gray who approaches them at night near the House of Horrors, begging for help. Eventually, Devon realizes that the only people who can see Linda are people who are dangerously close to death themselves, like his friend, Tom Kennedy, who will die young from cancer. Then there is Mike, a young boy with multiple sclerosis who lives with his mother in a Victorian mansion near Joyland. Devon becomes friends with the stricken boy and eventually becomes involved with Annie, Mike’s mother, in a kind of “Tea and Sympathy” relationship. As it becomes increasingly evident that Mike is dying, Devon and Annie decide to give Mike “a last wish” trip to Joyland. However, all of this seems to have much to do with fate and/or destiny.
There are a half-dozen subplots going here, but suffice it to say that Joyland contains intrigue and suspense to keep the reader scrambling to keep track of all of the misguided, doomed and revengeful characters who influence events at Joyland. In addition to a few sociopaths, there is a TV evangelist (who just happens to be Annie’s father) and two sons who are being groomed to take over their father’s TV ministry. However, King fails to develop this subplot. The holy trio never appears at Joyland. The reader is left to wonder how Devon’s final ride on the Joyland Ferris wheel would have been changed by three fundamentalist ministers!
The colorful minor characters includes a supporting cast of roving girl photographers who take random pictures of Joyland’s patrons which they sell back to those same patrons as they leave at the end of the day.
If Joyland has a flaw, it is the fact that it is afflicted with two deadly viruses: juvenilia and a kind of smarmy sentiment. The dialogue is sometimes painful to read since many of the characters talk like the kids on “Leave it to Beaver.” All of that bright-eyed, unabashed enthusiasm seems ill-suited to the cynical world of carney life. This, in conjunction with the poignant (and sometimes downright mawkish) sentiment attending the death of the wise-cracking Mike, who thumbs his nose at the darkness while he strives to accomplish what no one else can do, release the trapped soul of Linda Gray from the prison of the House of Horrors.
Joyland is vintage Stephen King and bears all of the earmarks (and occasional flaws) of his past work. Yet, somehow it all seems strangely muted. Devon and his buddy, Tom, talk like the kids in the classic film, “Stand by Me,” and the topics are always the same: flatulence, sex and girls. There is a serial killer who fulfills the requisite force of evil, and there is the final confrontation between the Devon and the “crazed killer” who has been “hiding in plain sight.”
I loved the setting of Joyland. It is eastern North Carolina and much of the action takes place near or around Wilmington and Lumberton. It is an area well-suited to hot, dark nights, the sprightly tune of a carousel, the smell of cotton candy and — wait — was that laughter? A squeal of joy or terror? Sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference. Listen!