Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
I purchased Joyland by Stephen King back in June of 2013, and it sat on my shelf for an entire year before I finally picked it up and read it. As you may remember, 2013 was the year of King’s Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. All of his fans, including myself, were anxiously awaiting its publication and everything else kind of went to the wayside. I clearly remember getting Joyland in the mail and casually sticking it up on the bookshelf, knowing the book would be there whenever I felt in the mood to read it. Well, I finished King’s Mr. Mercedes a few months ago and was still hungry for more fiction by the master of storytelling. I pulled Joyland down and decided to give it several pages. If it didn’t grab me by then, it would go back up onto the shelf until a later date and stronger interest.
Okay, this is what happened in a nutshell.
The book got hold of my neck in a rather vise-like grip, shook me around a little, banged my head into the wall, and then wouldn’t let go until I eventually finished reading the entire thing a few days later. There were still vivid finger marks around my neck afterwards, reminding me of how tightly the novel held my attention and reached out to the gentler essence of my soul. Some of King’s fiction does that, you know. That’s the mastery of his skill and success with the written word. He manages to somehow touch your heart in a way few other writers are able to do.
And, he doesn’t do this very often
The Dead Zone, The Body (aka Stand By Me), The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and 11/22/63 immediately come to mind. These stories are reminiscent of Joyland and how it affected my sense of time and place, taking me back to a period that seemed more innocent and certainly had more hope for the future. This was also a time filled with its own inner darkness, ready to snatch you in a heartbeat and to chew you up into tiny pieces before spitting you out. I suppose it helps that I’m from the coast of North Carolina (the Beaufort and Morehead City area) and that the story takes place about a hundred miles south of there in the early seventies. That was when I was still in college and attempting to understand the nature of life and love and the people who were closest to me. Needless to say, I identified somewhat with the character of Devin Jones in this book and for a brief interval I was back in North Carolina, enjoying the cool breezes off the Atlantic Ocean and the sound of seagulls hovering above the waves, and the smell of sea salt in the air. Though I didn’t know it then, those were good times, and I would never recapture them.
Joyland is the story of Devin Jones, a college student in New Hampshire, who decides to take a summer job in 1973 at a carnival near the South Carolina and North Carolina border. His girlfriend has more-or-less broken up with him, but he refuses to face the hard, cold facts. Subconsciously, he hopes they’ll get back together once they’ve spent some time apart and the fall semester starts back up back in full force in New Hampshire.
The carnival where Devin gets a job is called Joyland, and a young lady was murdered there in the Horror Fun House by a serial killer a few years before. That doesn’t bother Devin as he begins to learn the ropes and grind of the carny lifestyle. He soon captures the attention of the carnival’s owner because of his hard work and diligence in performing it. This will certainly payoff in the end.
In time, however, Devin will meet new friends who inadvertently lead him into a confrontation with the serial killer, who is still lingering around the area and carefully watching to see if anyone becomes even remotely suspicious of whom he might really be.
Devin’s whole life will change the summer of 1973 as he grows older and more mature, experiencing what it means to be a human being, falling in love for a second time, and finally having to face an incarnate evil to protect the lives of others. This will be the summer he never forgets.
What I’ve come to know about the writer Stephen King over the last thirty-five years is that there are two different authors inside the same body. Why this is, I don’t know. One author uses a particular style of writing in the majority of his fiction, while the other appears to have a completely different way of writing that I would guess flows through him without any thought or actual planning. It’s almost like the second style is channeled through him. If I were to ask Stephen King how he does this, I bet you a hundred dollars he wouldn’t have an answer. It’s simply something that happens every so often when he sits down to write a distinctive novel.
Now, Joyland was published by Hard Case Crime, which is a small outfit that produces some damn good books in the crime genre. But, it’s small. If a larger publisher had done Joyland, I’m sure this novel would’ve received more critical attention than it did. That’s not to put Hard Case Crime down. They really lucked out here in a big way and were able to publish what I consider to be one of Mr. King’s finest pieces of fiction. The only reason I bring this up is that this book seems to have slipped through the cracks by most everyone, except for a few who recognized its sheer brilliance and craftsmanship with the telling of the story.
The writing in Joyland is so smooth and seemingly effortless and the development of the characters so right-on that it’s almost as if the book actually comes alive in your hands. I know I found myself totally immersed within that remarkable summer and the world of the carnival and its workers. This is really what writing is all about…taking the reader on a journey with the written word so that he or she will never forget it. This novel is also the difference between a very good writer and a great writer. When someone can produce a story this believable and astounding in its ability to seep into the reader’s subconscious and take control, the author has certainly reached the status of Greatness. Stephen King would smile and shake his head, wanting only to tell a simple story and have it read by others.
Am I happy I finally read Joyland?
Damn right, I am.
This not only took me out of the drudgery of everyday life for a few days, but raised the bar for my own goals as a writer. Joyland is one of Stephen King’s best novels, and I sincerely hope all of his fans will eventually read it. Highly recommended!