Joyland: A Stephen King amuse-bouche



If you’ve read this blog in the past, you’ll find that I enjoy me some Stephen King. He’s like a palette-cleanser, an old faithful I turn to between other booksโ€”more challenging books or less challenging books or books that are intellectually fulfilling but don’t quite suck me in. King for me is like a favorite record. You don’t listen to it every day, but when you do it’s like rediscovering music.

In the grand scheme of the King ouvre, Joyland is a throwaway. It’s more a novella than a novel, almost a campfire story. It occupies a limited universe, for the most part a single point in time, and lacks even one Maine resident, or rip in the space-time continuum (though there is a psychic kid). The book is short and sweet, and its supernatural elements are understated, almost to a fault. Joyland is the kind of novel I imagine King dreams up at a red light, or on a long elevator ride. “So…what if there was a carny legend about a haunted funhouse…” and then the signal goes green and he drives off. Bam. Novel.

And essentially, that’s what the book is about. Told in flashback by narrator/protagonist Devin Jonesโ€”now in his 60sโ€”Joyland is the story of a summer and fall Dev spent working at Joyland, a seaside amusement park in North Carolina. While there, Dev makes friends, mourns a breakup and learns what it means to “wear the fur” on a 100-degree day in August. But throughout his time at Joyland, Dev is also haunted by the story of a girl who was murdered in the Horror House by her boyfriend. Carny lore is that her ghost still appears there to this day.

So Joyland isn’t epic, or even particularly memorable. But this is the thing about Stephen King. Even his red-light/elevator-ride novels are good. Not like Under the Dome good (let alone Shawshank good, orโ€”I’m toldโ€”The Stand good) but still enjoyable, absorbing, capable of distracting one from everyday life. Joyland has that melancholy nostalgic feel of all King novels set in the past (70s, in this case) and he is, as always, adept at capturing the infinite feeling of youth. (One might almost suspect Joyland of being something King wrote a long time ago and kept around for a rainy day.) And because the novel is set over such a short period of time, its length and depth feel appropriate. The narrator is, after all, recalling these few months of his life from a time more than forty years in the future.

Inspired by the creepy carnival vibe, I decided to follow up Joyland with Dean Koontz’s The Funhouse, which I vaguely remembered reading years and years ago, like when I was 10 and thought I was hot shit for blowing past Goosebumps and getting into “adult” scary stories (i.e. Goosebumps with sex). Sure enough, the scenes I remembered were primarily from a teenage double-date to the state fair that included making out and smoking a joint. Que escandalo!, I can picture my 10-year-old self thinking, if my 10-year-old self thought in Spanish. Remember, this was about the time I was watching Mr. Mom for the astronaut stripping scene. The thought of being alone with a boy on the Zipper was more than I could even process.

Where Joyland goes light on the horror and heavy on the inimitably King “spooky coming-of-age” thing, The Funhouse (published in 1980) is much more, well, gross. There are no ghosts in the novel, just a murderous carnival barker (and funhouse proprietor) named Conrad Straker, who has waited years to exact revenge on his ex-wife, an uber-Christian alcoholic who uses liquor and religion to drown out guilt from a crime she committed decades ago, back when she was still married to Conrad.

It’s been years since I read Koontz with any consistency, but I’ve always thought of him as Stephen King Lite. Which isn’t to say that his books are any less enjoyable, just that with Koontz you feel that you’re still in the same world as the real one, albeit with a preponderance of ghosts and serial killers. By contrast, Stephen King novels feel like they’re set in King World, where everyone is from Maine and the space-time continuum is dubious. A place where right and wrong do battle daily, in the form ofย clairvoyantย little boys and flawed but well-meaning writers, malevolent ghosts and various residents of other dimensions. King World makes it okay that his books blend together — that they repeat themes and recycle premises and in some cases even overlap. Because SK’s books are all essentially asking the same thing, all exploring the same moral debates that lie at the heart of King World: What would happen, and who would we become, if _____? And when you’re lost in King World, the end of the question almost stops mattering.


TITLE: Joyland
AUTHOR: Stephen King
PAGES: 288 (in paperback)
SORTA LIKE: The Funhouse meets The Body (Stand by Me)
FIRST LINE: “I had a car, but on most days in the fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay.”

8 thoughts on “Joyland: A Stephen King amuse-bouche”

  1. I cannot wait until you read The Stand. Seriously. How are you the book-reading-est person I know and you haven’t read The Stand?! I’m adding Joyland to my list…

  2. Can’t wait for you to finish ‘Fear of Flying’. As a kid, I used to take it off my parents’ shelf to look for the naughty bits. Then, when I read it properly years later, I loved it – even the clean bits.

  3. Saw an extended interview with Steven King on Sunday Morning (you know… that show you never watch : ) Seems like he’d be a great person to chat with. While I haven’t been able to really get into the Dark Tower series, I did work my way through the first volume. Have to say, it does show his range. But he definitely identifies with kids and outcasts in a big way….

  4. I guess most people are either a Koontz or King fan with not much in between. Talk about inter dimensional or other worldly have you read Koontz’s In The Corner of His Eye or By The Light of the Moon, Fear Nothing, Breathless, and so on, and so on? I’m not saying he’s on the top of his game with every book, but neither is King. I think most of the time Koontz goes into much deeper depth on his characters and what they are thinking. His endings generally leave you feeling like there is hope and good triumphed over evil for the hero(s).

    They are sicko, funny, horrific and have interesting truths you can relate too interspersed between the pages. Like I said I guess there’s not many that aren’t either/or fans…(-:

  5. My heart always jumps a little when I find people who feel the way I do about Stephen King. You articulated to the letter what he is to me as a reader. I feel like because he’s written so much, people underrate him as well as his understanding of fear and the human psyche. Having stumbled across your blog is such an affirmation! ๐Ÿ˜€

  6. I buy SK books on first day of release, have been a fan since the last century:) 86. Joyland is an sentimental, story and first love, loss of someone close and friendship, oh year there is a crime in it too. If you love SK, you will note he always manges to write something relating to Ireland in his books. i.e Cell it was U2, bag of bones, Johanna was in Ireland and in his new novel which is part of a trilogy he called us ‘shanty Irish’ lol been called worse.

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