Friday, September 13, 2013

Horror Fiction: Joyland by Stephen King

I'm not exactly a huge Stephen King fan. When I was much younger I had attempted to read both The Dead Zone and Pet Cemetery and wasn't able to finish either one. I was drawn to Joyland because it is short, has a great cover, and is about a haunted amusement park. I love amusement parks and I love roller coasters. I'll even go into the haunted house ride if there happens to be one, so Joyland seemed like a safe bet for me.

The Situation: Devin Jones has taken a job at Joyland the summer after his freshmen year at college. Eventually, he'll learn almost everything he needs to know in order to keep the small local amusement park running. Placed on a team with Erin and Tom, two people who will eventually become his best friends, Devin learns how to run every ride, sell every concession, and even becomes a master at wearing the "fur," which is a dog costume that every little kid wants hug, but almost none of the employees want to wear because of how intensely hot it gets. At first Devin holds onto the girlfriend he has back at college, Wendy, who is off having a summer adventure of her own. But when he receives a letter from her explaining that she has met someone else, Devin diverts his attention to the amusement park and playing sad records in his rented room while he struggles to sleep.

The Problem: Devin's broken heart eventually becomes the least of his concerns, especially after Rozzie, the Joyland fortune teller, happens to tell Devin a few things that turn out to be true. Also, there is the legend of Horror House and how it is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman who was murdered there a few years ago. Devin and his friends don't think too much about the stories and legends, until one of them is certain he has seen the ghost himself. The more Devin digs into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the girl's murder, and the ones that happened before hers, the more sure he is the the truth isn't too far away, whether he wants it to be or not. He also finds himself getting attached to a terminally ill boy and his distant mother. Devin knows such an attachment could lead to more heartache, even tragedy, but he continues to grow more attached, even with Rozzie's warnings that he can't save everyone. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror novel that, unlike many books that are being published these days, doesn't center around zombies or vampires. King goes back to the good old fashioned ghost in the haunted house of an amusement park. There isn't much blood and gore, and no possession of any sort, just the spirit of a life that ended way too young hanging out in the place where that life ended. Also, aside from Devin's broken heart, there isn't much angst in this story. King returns to a classic theme that, despite the creepy factor, is oddly comforting. Themes include the afterlife, ghosts and spirits, visions of the future, unsolved murder, and the amusement parks' ability to maintain the dual nature of being both exciting and terrifying. Some of what King included in what he calls "the Talk," the language that amusement park and carnival workers use around the park and around each other, is real, but a lot of it he also made up. But having played some of the games you find at carnivals myself, I am sure a lot of what he included about about how some of the guns don't exactly shoot straight or how some of the targets are almost impossible to knock over, is pretty spot on. 

My Verdict: After my disappointing attempts at two of King's most well-known works when I was much younger, I was pleasantly surprised that not only did I make it through this book, but I genuinely enjoyed it. As I mentioned before, the return to the ghost story was sort of comforting after having been inundated with vampires and zombies over recent years. And again, I couldn't be more pleased with the setting of the old school amusement park. Something about abandoned or empty amusement parks absolutely creeps me out. But when they are full and thriving with all of the rides going, they are exactly where I want to be. I think King perfectly captured an amusement park's ability to get you so excited to ride or see something that was designed to "thrill" or just plain scare you. I guess the same can be said for how audiences keep coming back for King's books whenever he writes a new one. Some people just enjoy being scared, as strange as that sounds. And that is the point (one of many) this book makes. 

Favorite Moment: When Devin manages to save a little girl's life who got so excited to see the park's mascot, Howie the Happy Hound, that she choked on her hot dog. 

Favorite Character: Fred Dean is the man who hired Devin for the summer job. He's old school, a little ornery, but ultimately he knows the amusement park industry and wouldn't steer Devin wrong. He even goes out of his way to make sure one of Devin's guest has the time of his life the day he visits Joyland. 

Recommended Reading: Well, if I had ever finished any other Stephen King books I would undoubtedly recommend one. So instead I think I'll go with Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. It has the similar feel of the eerie but incredibly mysterious and inviting, and also with a little murder mystery thrown in there as well. 

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