Despite its cover and Hard Case Crime imprint, Joyland is really a rather sweet coming-of-age novel set in the small town carnival culture of the early 1970s. This is not meant to say that the story does not involve elements of the supernatural, violence, or a thrilling “hold on tight” ending, however – because, after all, this is a Stephen King novel.
Devin Jones, trying to forget the college sweetheart who has so broken his heart, decides to extend his Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina, summer job into full-time work for the next year rather than to return to school. Devin has made some good friends among Joyland’s professional carnies and is proud of the delight he brings to small children when it is his turn to wear “the fur suit.” So, for him, Joyland is the perfect spot to get his head together before returning to the school he so closely associates with the young woman who broke his heart.
But all is not what it seems to be at Joyland. One of the carnival’s rides appears to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman murdered inside one of its cars, and Devin comes to suspect that others may have suffered a similar fate. Intrigued by the stories he hears around the carnival, Devin starts to ask questions and to do enough historical research to leave him wondering whether a serial killer is still out there somewhere. The closer he comes to the truth, the more danger he places himself and those closest to him in.
Along the way, young Devin will learn much about life and love from the close carny friends he makes and from his relationship with a slightly “older woman” and her young son. The boy, despite suffering a devastating illness, becomes one of the brightest and most consistently upbeat people in Devin’s life, and Devin’s relationship with the boy’s mother is one he will remember the rest of his life – if he lives long enough to grow old.
Joyland is about growing up, or - for the unlucky ones – not growing up, and the novel certainly has its emotional moments. What it does not do is break new ground for its author. Longtime Stephen King fans will feel right at home in the Joyland setting because King is a past master of tales like this one. Joyland is likely to be a “comfort read” for most of its readers, but it will probably disappoint others who are left with a “been there, done that” feeling.