“I wish I were younger,” I said to myself while reading the final few pages of Stephen King’s latest novel, Joyland. I wish I were fourteen years old. I wish this were the first Stephen King book I ever read because this is the kind of novel that has the power to inspire. Joyland is a gripping coming of age story, and boy does it pull a few emotional chords along the way. Stephen King is a wise man, and he has an uncanny ability to tap into certain aspects of life that apply to almost everyone. King’s unique brand of horror has always been so potent because there’s an underlying sense of humanity, and perhaps none of King’s recent work embraces that more than Joyland.
King’s latest novel is equal parts new and familiar. As you can tell from the nostalgic cover art, Joyland is King’s ode to pulp crime novels. It tells the story of college student Devin Jones who spends his 1973 summer working at an amusement park as he attempts to overcome the crushing blow of his first experience with heartbreak. Devin narrates the story, reflecting on this formative year in his life, which infuses the story with palpable moments of old-age wisdom.
Since Devin is telling the story in retrospect, from the beginning we know that he survives, though some of the other characters are not so lucky. Some of my favorite moments of the book come when Devin breaks from the main story in order to offer updates on the other characters. The way he speaks about the death of his friends makes it all the more disconcerting when he returns to them in the 1973. Devin speaks about mortality as easily as one talks about tomato soup, and it’s something we come to appreciate by the end of the novel.
King is a master at bringing readers into the protagonist’s head. Devin is one of the most empathic characters I’ve ever encountered, perhaps because his first experience with heartbreak holds unnerving similarities to my own. However, it’s the tiny details that King adds that make Devin so relatable. As Devin explains, he spent his summer “re-reading The Lord of the Rings,” he continues, “I also wrote a fair amount of poetry, which I am now embarrassed even to think about. Thank god I burned it.” While reading this passage, it felt like King is pulling from my own life. However, it’s when King hints at the specific sexual experiences Devin had with his ex-girlfriend that really strikes home. Anyone who has ever been dumped can relate to Devin’s fantasies, but moreover the way King detracts from his heartbreak is ultimately what makes this novel worth reading.
A Stephen King book would not be complete without an element of the supernatural. When Devin begins his summer at Joyland, he comes to learn that the House of Horrors harbors a sinister past, and the ghost of murder victim Linda Gray is said to haunt the place. The “funhouse killer” was never discovered and Devin becomes infatuated with her story and solving the case. He simultaneously meets a young mother and her wheelchair bound son. As their relationship begins to flourish, the ghost of Linda Gray becomes even more important. King ties the two seemingly separate storylines together masterfully, culminating in a heart-pounding climax.
Joyland is a genuine, personal tale that explores the importance of love, loss, and death. Although it is being promoted as a pulp novel, it is far deeper than the surface lets on. King intertwines elements of horror, crime, and romance into this gem of a novel. I can only hope that this book will function for some young reader as King’s work did for me at a young age, setting me on a path to a lifelong love with horror.
At its core, Joyland is a coming of age story that teaches us to appreciate those special moments in our lives because “some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few”. King leaves you with the powerful idea that even though the day will come that we are all forced to meet our maker, there’s something undeniably beautiful about that.