BOOK REVIEW: ‘Joyland’ isn’t King’s usual ride

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First Posted: 6/10/2013

Amusement parks are a summer staple, those destinations that can’t help but bring out happiness in all who walk through the gates. And while that can be said for the main setting in Stephen King’s newest novel, “Joyland,” that particular park holds no joy for lead character Devin Jones, a 21-year-old on the precipice of heartbreak.

Set in 1973 and narrated by the now 61-year-old Jones, “Joyland” follows the young adult through that fateful summer, where heartbreak was not the only thing lurking on the edges of his mind.

It’s hard to even categorize this one, which has been published for the Hard Case Crime series: it’s a ghost story, it’s a mystery – it’s a tale of crossing the line into adulthood.

It’s also the perfect summer read (available only in paperback, to preserve that nostalgic feel), giving insight into the inner workings of carnival life.

Though King admits that he made some things up about the way an amusement park like Joyland operates, he also did his research to bring about an authentic feel to the job. Try pushing away the thought that you might like to run off and operate a Ferris wheel or two of your own – you can’t.

But in this land of joy (where you will hear time and again that they “sell fun”) lurks a great shadow in the form of the Horror House, the park’s only dark ride where a young girl was murdered years before and where people now claim to see her saddened spirit. The killer has never been found, and Jones finds himself drawn to the mystery.

On his way, he meets a bevy of well-developed characters with all the signature nuances King has come to be known for: a Ferris wheel operator with a distinct pitch for his ride that filters into everyday conversation, a carny gypsy who blurs her fake Romanian accent with her true New Yorker, and a dying, gifted young boy and his protective mother who help Jones see past his young life’s troubles and into something much deeper.

As always, King brings the creeps, but not in the way you might expect. There’s no blood, no gore – there’s barely a ghost.

King doesn’t go full-tilt on the supernatural side of things (though there is one creepy scene that may make you think twice when glancing at a ride’s moving car), but the reality of the situation at hand is enough to put a solid scare into readers, maybe even more so than any ghoul could.

As always, King puts a sense of foreboding in place, urging readers on page after page in hopes of finally uncovering the evil that lurks beneath a place built on happiness. They eventually get there, though the climb can be a little rough at times.

It’s a nostalgic tale that seems more of an overblown short story, though the excess of words has been put to paper beautifully.

King has certainly rolled back into his stride, and “Joyland” is solid proof of that.

‘Joyland’ by Stephen King Rating: W W W