I really enjoyed Stephen King's Joyland. It's not really what I expect from someone who mostly writes horror stories. But then I've not read any of his books for ages, and the smattering I have read are a few of his more famous novels like The Shining, Carrie and the Dark Half, which tend toward darker themes. And then there have been all the movie adaptations, too, from other books which have in a few cases scared me silly.
But Joyland is in an entirely different category. It reminds me of something Ray Bradbury might have written. It's a sort of coming of age story and crime novel all rolled into one with a nice touch of nostalgia thrown in for good measure (think Stand By Me as adapted to film). You know you are in the hands of someone with talent when they can write what is essentially a crime novel (albeit one with ghostly overtones) and still have you near to tears (and not from fear or boredom) out of empathy for the characters. And we're even talking (in a few instances) peripheral characters here, too.
Joyland is narrated from time and distance by the main character. He's looking back on one heartbreaking, life-changing summer which begins in anguish over a failed relationship. Yet it is also the summer he comes into his own, gains his independence and becomes an adult. What happens to Dev this summer not only charts a new course for his life, but as well alters that of a few people around him. This is a summer of life and of death, of love lost and love found. It's a summer lifelong friendships are forged. And it's the summer a long-forgotten mystery is solved and a mother learns how to let go of her son. Ambitious, yes, but Stephen King pulls it off.
It's 1973 and Devin Jones is beyond smitten by Wendy Keegan. The two have been dating, but unhappily for Dev the relationship hasn't advanced physically beyond the groping stage. When she announces she's going to spend the summer in Boston with a friend working, his disappointment is palpable. As a matter of fact it's thanks in part to Wendy that Dev sets off for Joyland in North Carolina. It's a job he happens upon by chance when he spots an ad in a local paper.
"And what glum twenty-one-year-old, beset with the growing fear that he might be losing his girlfriend, would not be attracted by the idea of working in a place called Joyland?"
Joyland is a place happiness is made, even if it is only temporary. It's a smaller park than the big boys like Disney, but for the locals it offers a snatch at fun and entertainment, a little respite from life's drudgeries--even for just a day. Of course behind the happy facade and the bright lights lurks something infinitely more sinister and dark. Years before a murder took place in the Funhouse of Fear. The woman's body was not found until the next day. Her screams went unnoticed in a ride where screaming is the norm. Her killer was never found and the tragic event simply faded into carnival-park folklore.
Wendy urges Dev to try for the job, which entails doing a little bit of everything. For Dev it means spending lots of time in the Howie the Hound suit, which on hot days is mercilessly stifling. But Dev has a knack for it. Though he spends many angst-ridden hours thinking about Wendy and wondering why she dumped him, it's not necessarily a bad existence he leads that summer. He even manages to hold his own with the other carny-folk, and when his friends prepare to return to college as summer turns to fall, Dev decides to stay on. It's what happens after the park closes for the season that makes the story really heat up and move along at a brisk pace.
The story, however circuitously it travels, is ultimately about a murder. King builds and shapes and molds all the disparate characters and storytelling threads until it moves towards that final exciting trajectory that holds in it a small surprise or two. I thought it quite masterfully done--the sort of storytelling I like where the reader is grabbed from the start and wafted along with each new piece of information, or new character or event in the story pieced together until the larger picture emerges. I had forgotten just how good a writer Stephen King is.
Joyland is a perfect RIP/autumn/Halloween read. Did I see somewhere that movie rights have been sold? Not suprising. Joyland is yet another nicely atmospheric read, but one that doesn't just rely on atmosphere. He creates such a weird, wild (though not too much of either) world of amusement parks, already so unique, but adding a flavor all its own to the story. There is just a hint of the paranormal--the murder mystery being unraveled, a ghostly sighting or two buut nothing too far out of reality.
This is my second (of four) RIP reads (loved Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture). Wilkie Collins is on my writing agenda for later this week and I've got a few more short stories to read. Just in time for Halloween.