Joyland by Stephen King – review

Joyland paperback coverIn Stephen King’s best novel in years, 11.22.63 (2011), the veteran author revisited the period of his youth, the 1950s and ‘60s. A character from the present, our present, went back to 1958, encountered love, tried to stop a killer. In King’s latest novel it is a decade after the fall of America’s Camelot. In the summer of 1973 Devin Jones, a young man working his way through college (University of New Hampshire) takes a dogsbody job (pun very much intended) at an old style amusement park. On the beach, on the border of the Carolinas, Joyland isn’t corporate or slick. It’s no Disneyworld. The  carney spirit lingers on. It is a set-up ripe with nostalgia for a world, already in 1973, giving way to vast new theme parks.

Dev is in the process of getting his heart broken by his first love, Wendy. He rooms in a lodging house on the beach. Makes new friends, both permanent staff at Joyland and fellow summer help Erin and Tom. Erin is hired as a ‘Hollywood Girl’, dashing around Joyland with an old-fashioned camera taking photos of the rubes – they can, and often do, buy a print on the way home. You can see an artist’s impression of Erin on the retro-pulp cover of Joyland’s paperback edition.

King’s latest is narrated by Dev, looking back from now to then. As in The Body, in which a middle-aged writer reflects on a pivotal summer in his boyhood, Joyland is one of Stephen King’s bittersweet exercises into nostalgia. But being King, it isn’t just a coming of age tale. Besides a young man taking his first job, probably his first job, we don’t hear about any before it, losing his first love, Joyland is a mystery, a crime story, a thriller, a ghost story. In the summer of 1969 a young woman was murdered in Joyland’s House of Horror (why the cover says ‘Who Dares Enter the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR’ is a mystery best solved by the blurb writer). In the four years since many of Joyland’s staff have seen her haunting presence.

Apart from a ghost, Joyland also has a couple of characters who, in Stephen King language, have the shining. Not that the word is used in this book. Still, long before he meets them Dev is instructed to look out for a girl in a red hat and a boy with a dog. Both will play prominent roles in the events of the summer and fall of 1973. For yes, the book continues into the fall, as Joyland closes its gates and winds down for winter. It is a book of two halves, frenetic summer, the self-professed best and worst autumn of a young man’s life.

King evokes all this perfectly. The friendships, the heartbreak, the world-in-itself of Joyland with its rich language, some general carny, (carny from carny, so to speak) some particular to Joyland itself and imagined by King. The blend is seamless. He captures the crazy pace and heat-stroke buzz of summer tourist work, and the sad, lonely feeling of life in a resort after the boys and girls of summer have gone.

So Joyland is a haunted book, and not just by ghosts. It is about memory, looking back, coming to terms. Dev, in his early 60’s is recalling the beginnings of his working life, 40 years before. And King is looking back to a time when he was still, just, a young would-be writer. A little older than Dev, By 1973 King had worked his own way through University of Maine and laboured backbreaking manual jobs to pay the bills. About the time Joyland is set King signed the contract for his first published novel, Carrie. The rest is history, but in the summer of 1973 (Carrie was published in April ‘74) King had no idea of the success ahead. He was just another struggling young man hoping to make it.

Now as the world awaits the September publication of Doctor Sleep, the in some quarters long desired, in others dreaded, sequel to The Shining, it is fascinating to find King revisiting the period immediately prior to the release of the novels which made him a household name. Joyland is a relatively low key publication. Certainly by the level of hype associated with a writer of King’s stature. Joyland might be taken as the summer warm-up to the fall Doctor Sleep, setting the stage for a doubtless to be much more hyped return to 1970s style King. Because yes, while there are echoes of The Shining here there is also a parallel with Carrie; it is significant that one character is in rebellion against a dominant religious fanatic of a parent. The details are very different.

Joyland, Spanish cover
Joyland, Spanish cover

Anyone who remembers Kubrick’s film of The Shining, a film King famously disliked, will remember that in that movie there is another film playing on television in the Overlook hotel. The Summer of ‘42 is a 1971 nostalgia flick looking back on events 29 years before in which a youth on the verge of manhood has one unforgettable summer around a New England beach. With King’s story looking back 39 years to another summer on another East Coast beach it’s possible some readers will think of the North Carolina romances of novelist Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle). But anyone familiar with The Summer of ’42 will understand what King is really doing. With the sequel to The Shining out in a couple of months and that old romance movie featured within the film version of The Shining this all has to be more than coincidence.

King wrote The Shining inspired by a stay in the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. Other than that, most of his work is set in Maine, where he has lived most of his life. More recently some of his work, for instance Duma Key, has featured a Florida backdrop. This is since King has become a snowbird, migrating between the two states. Because sometimes they drive rather than fly that biannual excursion takes the Kings right through the Carolinas. Chances are that at least once in the past few years King made a stop at Carowinds, the amusement park straddling the border of North and South Carolina and which, coincidentally or not,  opened in 1973. Carowinds is inland, outside Charlotte, while the fictional Joyland is on the beach between Wilmington, NC and Myrtle Beach, SC. In reality the Bird Island state nature reserve occupies the coastal border between the Carolinas. But you have to wonder, was King inspired to write Joyland by Carowinds (as he was inspired to pen The Shining by the Stanley Hotel), but also wanted to tip his hat to The Summer of ‘42, so shifted his fictional Carolinas amusement park to the beach?

Joyland is one of King’s smaller novels. It is not a brick-sized epic. It is his second novel, after The Colorado Kid, to be published as a paperback original by Hard Case Crime. There were also three limited hardcover editions, all sold out. Mortgage your house to buy a ‘collectable’. Quite rightly for a story rooted in the 1970s there is no ebook. Just as we read Carrie and The Shining so long ago, Joyland must be read as a real book.

Joyland is a fast, easy read. The 282 pages fly by. I read all but the first few pages in an afternoon and evening with just a break for tea. King draws the reader in with his usual skill. It is not one of his major works, it’s no 11.22.63, but is far more substantial than The Wind Through The Keyhole. Joyland is tremendously enjoyable, and with its thematic connections to King’s earliest work serving as a prelude to the more anticipated (but almost certainly to disappoint) Doctor Sleep, essential for all Constant Readers.


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