I remembered Joyland as a ghost story, but it’s not. Not really. There is a ghost. Some characters see the ghost (though our point of view character does not). But it’s really a mystery… and also a coming-of-age tale. When I looked it up, I found that a reviewer compared it to “The Body”, and it really does have that kind of feel about it, even though the book’s main events occur when the main character is considerably older than the boys from “The Body”. But really, he’s searching for a ghost in a carnival, and along the way learning important things about himself and the people around him, and by the way, saving a few lives and solving a murder. And he never actually sees the ghost.
Honestly, I really like this book. I don’t think it’s super deep or making any big points (other than “someone you know might be a murderer”, maybe?) At some points along the way, I almost get the feeling that he wrote it because he wanted an excuse to use the carny language that he learned about somewhere. (By the way, that carny language — or something very much like it — is going to come up again very soon.) It’s fun to read though. It gives you all the right feels — you’re never really worried for the life of the main character — I wasn’t, anyway — but you’re definitely with him all the way. You’re happy in the right places, sad in the right places, and even surprised in a few places.
The surprises surprised me because, in a lot of ways, this seems like a fairly standard whodunit story. And a lot of Stephen King stock characters are there too. Beautiful, self-sacrificing young mother. (Who does a whole Mrs. Robinson thing with our even younger protagonist. Which is not my favorite thing, but OK.) Somewhat spooky little kid with the shining (no, they didn’t call it that, but come on. It’s the shining) Overly controlling televangelist grandfather of spooky kid (we never actually even meet him). A Perfect Couple™ consisting of a Smart Girl and an All-American Good Guy. Devin, our POV character, is also an All-American Good Guy. His big flaw is that he happens to be nursing a broken heart, but that doesn’t stop him from delighting small children and saving people from dying, so, you know. And mostly, these characters do what you’d expect.
But I wasn’t expecting the killer to turn out to be… who he was. It wasn’t that there was no indication at all, but in this easy, breezy read, the signs that we should be looking closer at this person were very easy to breeze right by. So the big reveal came as an actual big reveal the first time I read this. And I honestly don’t feel like King does that a lot. He’s much more about telling you [how we got to thing] than about telling you [thing] and sometimes he’ll tell you [thing] right up front so that you will not be preoccupied with it and focus on [how we got to thing]. But this is the kind of story where you want a big reveal, and I think he pulled it off pretty well.
I also wasn’t expecting Hero Mom Annie to show up with a gun and save Devin from death by ferris wheel at the last minute. To be fair, she shouldn’t have been there because she shouldn’t have known to be there. If this had been a straight whodunit and not a Stephen King story, that wouldn’t have worked. But it did work, here, because Annie’s kid has the shining and sees dead people and one of them told him to tell his mom to go save Devin. I’m completely fine with that because it’s not like Annie’s kid developed the shining just for this scene. But it did surprise me.
I’m also sort of surprised that Annie’s televangelist father never made much of an appearance. He’s discussed, but he’s not secretly the killer, he’s not a total bad guy, he’s not even a total fraud, according to the kid. In a lot of King stories, that character would have shown up and would have been, if not the killer, the guy who was there to shut Joyland down for moral turpitude. Or a pedophile. Or something. Not in this one.
It’s also a bit of a surprise for the main character not to see the ghost. I mean, it doesn’t stop him from solving her murder, but you’d think he’d see her, right?
I had only read this once before, back when it came out. I actually ordered the paperback (at the time, it was released in paperback only, with a limited hardcover edition a bit later. I don’t know when the ebook came out, but I’m glad it did, because I have no idea where my paperback copy ended up.) So it wasn’t all new to me — but after 9 years, I’d forgotten enough to still be surprised, even if I thought “oh, I knew that” afterward. I don’t know why I haven’t really re-read this one. It’s the kind of book I would think of as a good beach read. You know, it’s very light reading (and short, especially for Stephen King) but the story is tight and well-paced, it’s not so light that it’s empty, it will still intrigue you, and it will still surprise you. I’m writing this in June when it’s much too hot to concentrate hard, so this story was a welcome respite.
The very end, when Devin is speaking as a much older man, calls to mind nothing as much as Hearts in Atlantis. If you don’t like Hearts, that’s OK, that parts are short. But if you like the mood and language and atmosphere of Hearts, this return is a nice touch. And the quote that I pulled for the title seems like it stepped right out of Hearts. To be honest, that quote was the one thing I remember well from this book, it’s one of my all-time favorites.
This also seems like a book that could be made into a decent movie or miniseries or something. I really, really wish that some of the people who make these kinds of decisions would look at something like this and see what they could do with it instead of… lackadaisically remaking Firestarter or creating a prequel for It? Grr. Wikipedia says that Freeform had plans to make it a series in 2018 (which seems weird too — there’s not enough here for a series) but that has apparently stalled out. Very strange, because it’s so short and straightforward, I’d think it would be easier to adapt than some of the big doorstop novels.