Year: 2015 (Illustrated Edition), 2013 (original)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
Format: Hardcover (Illustrated Edition)
[note: this is a slightly tweaked version of a review previously published on my other blog, in 2018]
College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life – and what comes after – that would change his world forever.
A riveting story about love and loss, about growing up and growing old – and about those who don’t get to do either because death comes for them before their time – Joyland is Stephen King at the peak of his storytelling powers. With all the emotional impact of King masterpieces such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, Joyland is at once a mystery, a horror story, and a bittersweet coming-of-age novel, one that will leave even the most hard-boiled of readers profoundly moved.
As an avid Stephen King follower who has read almost everything by the author, I have to begin this review by admitting that I consider most of his modern output to live in the shadows cast by his earlier, more horror-centric classics such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot and Christine. Don’t get me wrong though: I love the newer books and never fail to get into them proper but it’s rare that I can wax lyrical about them as I can with the old stuff.
Joyland is a rare and welcome exception though. The book is short by Stephen King standards and – here in the UK at least – was published under the “Hard Case Crime” banner so it was a little different straight away. In fact, Joyland‘s release had somehow passed me by until I was given it as a Christmas gift back in 2013.
Joyland‘s story is brief but powerful and contains a splash of the supernatural (it IS a Stephen King book, after all) but is largely grounded in reality and tells the story of Devin Jones, a young college student who takes a summer job at a carnival-style amusement park called Joyland. It is at Joyland that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. The central plot strand running through Joyland focuses on a series of unsolved, violent murders – the last one occuring at the park itself – and while Devin’s investigation of these killings is the vehicle that keeps the story moving, Joyland is actually much more.
Joyland is a story about love, being young and foolish and growing up. We’ve all been there at Devin’s age and through his eyes I was able to recall my own similar experiences, flawed perceptions and heartaches. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but, as we eventually learn in real life, happy endings aren’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road. If I had to pick just one theme from Joyland that I especially enjoyed, then I would have to go with the the theme of growth. The book is short by Stephen King standards but, even so, the reader gets to share Devin’s journey as circumstances force him to mature from a lost university student – only out for some summer work – into a young adult.
That was my afternoon for provoking tears. First Eddie, now Annie. Mike was dry-eyed, though, and he looked every but as furious as I felt. But he said nothing as she grabbed the handles of his wheelchair, spun it around, and drove it at the door. I thought she was going to crash into them, but the magic eye got them open just in time.
Let them go, I thought, but I was tired of letting women go. I was tired of just letting things happen to me and then feeling bad about them.
A nurse approached me. “Is everything all right?”
“No,” I said, and followed them out.
As I’ve said, the book is short yet King nevertheless manages to squeeze a lot of emotion, rich detail and believable character development into such a limited space. Joyland packs a real punch without being a novel of three to four times the size and it hooked me quicker and harder than many of his bigger, more sprawling books. Most of all though, the story and characters are incredibly endearing and it was the kind of book that I genuinely didn’t want to finish because I simply couldn’t get enough of the world that Stephen King had created within the pages of Joyland.
Overall I would recommend Joyland to any Stephen King fan without hesitation but even if you aren’t familiar with his work then I would be just as firm with my recommendation, because this is a great story with highly relatable characters that anybody can enjoy. What I’m saying is don’t be put off by King’s name being on the cover if you aren’t a fan of horror. Joyland has all the quality writing and authentic characterisation that are associated with the writer but it IS different.
The ‘Illustrated Edition’ is a special treat, too. This hardcover edition sports its own unique, gloriously pulpy cover art and contains more than twenty illustrations of varying (but always old-school) styles from Pat Kinsella, Robert McGinnes and Mark Summers. These – along with the purposely-manufactured crude deckle edge finish to the book – really make you feel as if you are holding a classic pulp mystery in your hands.
Joyland is – without a doubt in my mind – one of the very best Stephen King books of the last decade. If you’ve missed this, then you need to give it a go ASAP.