It’s 1973, and young Devin Jones takes a summer job at the Joyland theme park in North Carolina. Devin is getting over being dumped by his girlfriend and he hopes that a summer of hard work might just get her out of his system.
Devin is your typical Kingian character: an average Joe, a kid who is both bright and slightly naïve yet still manages to have enough smarts to get by. As he settles into his new role as a theme park factotum, Devin teams up with a couple of other college kids, Tom and Erin, and rents a room in a boarding house where he retreats at night to lick his wounds and listen to his Doors records.
Things get interesting when the Joyland fortune teller informs him that he will meet two children that summer, one a girl with a red hat and the other a boy with a dog. One of them, he is told, has The Sight. On top of all that, there’s the resident Joyland ghost – the restless spirit of a young woman who was murdered in the haunted house attraction and has been seen there on a few occasions. Her killer was never found.
King is best known for his supernatural horror stories – novels that blend the quixotic with the weird to produce something his readers can never get enough of. For me, though, he does a lot of his best writing when he’s not writing horror, or when the horror thread is bound in lightly. Ever since I read "Different Seasons" in my late teens, I found that I got on even better with his non-horror than I did with the supernatural stuff.
"Joyland" combines both of these strands of King’s writing. The supernatural brushes up against the everyday, like strangers brushing shoulders on a crowded street. They turn, make eye contact, but their contact is brief and the touch is light.
I’ve heard a few people complain that the character of Devin Jones lacks any flaws, and that this is a weakness of the novel. He’s too nice. But I didn’t find that a problem. He does have a flaw, and it’s one that drags him deeper into the plot: he’s easily led around by his dick by the women he meets.
The novel possesses an all-enveloping air of nostalgia – and let’s face it, King has always excelled in examining a kind of past-life America that never really existed in the first place, a semi-fictional country where traditional values hold sway and love, honour, and the family unit can save the day. A main theme in his work is how these things can also be tainted, and used against his characters, perhaps even kill them. Nostalgia is never far from his stories, but often it’s a muddy, wistful, painful kind of nostalgia that has sharp teeth. That’s certainly the case here. What could almost be described as a Bradbury type set up is skewed by the darkness King never fails to bring to the table, and a rich vein of pathos helps dull the edges of what could in other hands could have been a hollow, sickly-sweet view of the past.
The detective story elements of the book do not provide the main thrust of the story. The crime plot is simply something the characters have wondered into, disturbing it like dust on an empty road. It’s incidental to the real story. Indeed, Devin doesn’t even investigate the crime he’s discovered. He gets someone else to do his legwork as he concentrates on trying to climb into bed with a rich widow as he befriends her dying son. I didn’t care much about the actual identity of the perpetrator, but I did care about what would happen once they were identified and that disturbed dust formed a black cloud around Devin and the people closest to him.
"Joyland" is a strong novel; I’d argue that it’s one of the best King has produced in years. It’s a slender volume, which helps propel the action, and the narrative is tight and structurally sound – despite being rather slight. But unlike a lot of popular crime fiction, this novel isn’t built entirely around the plot. It’s built around the characters, the people who live in the world King has crafted. Their hopes and fears and desires. The way that certain dark acts have a way of blighting the future for everyone, even those touched by those acts in years to come. The fact that the things we do, or allow to be done, when we are younger can stain us forever, altering the course of our existence and dragging people into our dark orbit to be damaged themselves.
Gary McMahon is the author of several acclaimed novels and short story collections. He lives and works in West Yorkshire, where he trains in Shotokan karate and likes cycling in the rain. He can be found on the web at www.garymcmahon.com