I originally published this book review on Goodreads in late July 2013, hence the reference to “stars.” (Friend me on that network, by the way, if we’re not already connected and you like reading book reviews of literary and horror fiction). I didn’t begin blogging, however, until the following month but wanted to add this review since I’m accumulating reviews of horror stories here. Thanks to Eugene Scott for commenting on my original Goodreads review.
So okay, here we go. Let’s give Joyland by Stephen King two stars just for that fantastic, irresistible cover–bright, pastel-toned oranges, browns and yellows with the amusement park backdrop and the shocked, green dress-bedecked redhead captured in the moment of some great, horrific discovery. It’s a great throwback to the pulp fiction and dime-store novels that were, no doubt, popular during the author’s youth. “Who Dares Enter the Funhouse of Fear?” Fantastic.
Introducing Joyland and the Ghost Within
Joyland, too, was published as part of the Hard Case Crime series, which I had never really known much about before but researched to get a better sense of other authors and their work. To his credit, Stephen King doesn’t mind using his celebrity to draw attention to writers whom his readers might never otherwise consider.
Unfortunately, the story does not live up to the promise of its cover. Devin Jones, the young protagonist, spends a summer at a North Carolina amusement park struggling to recover from the fact that his girlfriend up north has left him for another, apparently studlier, man. As well, the carnival has a ghost and suspense follows as the reader attempts to discover who exactly cut a woman’s throat and discarded her body in Joyland’s House of Horrors.
Joyland’s Other Challenges (Besides the Ghost)
The main problem lies in the fact that the mystery really has no bearing on Devin Jones’ life. He listens to his Doors‘ albums and contemplates suicide (ho-hum, not so different from a million other heartbroken 21-year-olds) but spends the rest of his time making friends and doing a marvelous job working at Joyland in a way that has no apparent connection to his personal development. As any good writing instructor will tell you, your protagonist must be in conflict with an external foe (a villain), nature or an internal foe (oneself). Hard to see where any of that happens here…
In addition, King’s attempt to share the lingo of carnival life means just about every character ends up force-feeding readers with highly implausible jargon. I hate books where the research is apparent and manipulative. I wanted to smell the smells–the cotton candy, the animals, the sweat of the carnival goers. Joyland attendees are commonly known as “rubes” in the argot of carnival life; go ahead and tell us that, but show us the people anyway. Who are they? How do they look? What do they do? Sometimes Joyland seems more like an exegesis than a novel. I wanted the visceral quality of carnival life and never really got it.
Fine Protagonist; So-so Story
Devin’s a likable enough guy and the dramatic final conflict does occur in a way that makes great use of Joyland’s carnival setting. For all that, though, there really were no stakes for Devin throughout the story until the last 30 or so pages and, by then, I didn’t really care. We’ve seen Stephen King hit it out of the ballpark with coming-of-age stories. The Body and It come to mind.
It’s a swing and a miss this time, though, for Mr. King. Joyland has a great cover and a great concept but life never quite feels breathed into the story. “What we sell here is fun,” is the oft-quoted mission statement of Joyland. I truly wish there had been a little more of that. My primary source of satisfaction walking away from the novel came from the fact that it was one of his shorter reads.