Devin Jones has gotten a job working as a ‘carnie’ in a small North Carolinian town. The amusement park Joyland was a site of the legendary unsolved murder. The house of Horrors was where this murder took place, half way through the ride a man cut the throat of his date and threw the body out of the carriage. It wasn’t until the end of the night that they found the dead body (most people thought it was part of the house of horrors) but by then the man was long gone.
Stephen King is best known for his fantastical and horror elements but since this was a Hard-Case Crime novel, I expected more of a pulp novel rather than what I got. There was that pulp and gritty whodunit element but true to King style there was some supernatural components within the novel as well which for me seemed unnecessary; I felt like King sets up the novel in his normal horror fashion and then completely forgets about it. It wasn’t till right near the end that he returned to this plot arc, almost like he needed to wrap everything up in a nice neat bow so he had to finish off that arc as quickly as possible. Without these supernatural elements the novel would remain just the same and maybe even more realistic. There is the fortune teller who gets more air time but then that could be just a character that is really good at reading people and wouldn’t need to be explained.
Both the whodunit and horror genre styles don’t really fit this book anyway; this is a coming of age novel, dealing with Devin’s first real job, his first heart break, first sexual experience, as well as friendship and loss. The story feels like a noir or pulp novel by the way it is written but that all takes a backseat to the building of characters. Not that there is anything wrong with that but in pulp novels it’s all about the minimalism and jamming the novel with a fast paced plot. Joyland didn’t do this and I struggle to find a reason why this book was added to the Hard-Case Crime series.
So once I got past my initial expectations, Joyland does turn out to be a fairly enjoyable novel. It’s not what I wanted but it was still good. I’ve not read much of King in the past (The Gunslinger and 11/22/63) and both those novels really were not what I would have expected from a Stephen King novel. I must remember to read some of his classic novels like The Shining, The Stand or It just to see if what I expect from this author is different. I never expected so much character development and I never expected his books to focus more on the relationship with other characters, but it seems I might be misinformed about his works.
Joyland mainly focuses on Devin’s heartbreak, the girl he thought was the one and everything was perfect. You know your typical young adult, love struck thinking that never seems to be correct. This heartbreak really affects Devin, as all first heartbreaks do, but then he meets single mum Annie and her son Mike. Mike is such a great character and probably the only one I actually liked within the book and the relationship between the three blossoms in a somewhat awkward way. I felt like King had a good handle on the difficult relationship but some of the directions he took left me perplexed. This plot arc took up about two hundred pages and that only left 80 pages to really return to the mystery of Joyland.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I feel this book wasn’t marketed properly, this is not a noir style mystery and I don’t think it deserved to be put in the Hard-Case Crime series. As a standalone Stephen King novel I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it wasn’t marketed the way it was. Interestingly King didn’t release this book in eBook format, he wanted everyone to go into their local bookstore and buy the book. Yet he didn’t restrict the sales of the book on those online bookselling websites; so really his attempt to get people into bookstores failed. Don’t go into this novel expecting pulp, this is a coming of age story, with a dash of attempt at the pulp genre.
Not too shabby. King's a decent mimic and when he tries for the styles of other novelists (like going for the crime noir angle here, or the Cthulhu mythos in a couple short stories) it tamps down some of his own idiosyncrasies that make his voice a bit corny, a bit Spielbergian (to coin a phrase). He can't quite keep himself away from the supernatural and the psychic kids bit, but there isn't too terribly much of that and the voice of the narrator is simple, charming, and decent.
If I were a first time Stephen King reader, I may have given this book another star. The narrative was better than average, but overall, the book was lacking the 'King-element'. Even though I know Stephen King writes in multiple genres, when I pick up one of his books, I expect an element of creepy (Carrie, Pet Sematary) or dark without the creep (Misery, Dolores Claiborne), but either way, I expect great characters that are so richly drawn you don't forget them when you put the book down.
This book started so slowly, I almost did put it down. The main character 'Dev' is rather bland in this coming of age story. The book didn't pull on any particular emotion which is essential for me in a solid read. I gave it three stars mainly for the narrative. The story itself I'd give two-stars.
Stephen King is a literary genius, (IMO) and that fact is reflected better in his early work. But, like too many other writers, his newer books don't have the same 'grab you by the throat' or 'can't take your eyes off the page' that his early work had in abundance. Maybe even writers suffer from the Peter Principle....