‘Joyland” comes with all the horror trappings for which Stephen King is known: a sinister carnival, a grisly unsolved murder, a haunted ride.
“Horror House was a dark ride, but when it was in operation, this stretch was the only completely dark part. It had to be where the girl’s killer had cut her throat and dumped her body … And suppose … just suppose … a young girl’s hand reached out in that darkness and took mine?”
Even the wonderfully retro cover, which is bedecked with a horror-struck redhead in a tiny green dress and which blares, “Who Dares Enter the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR?”, promises us terrors galore.
The thriller’s narrator is Devin Jones, looking back on his 20s and the time he spent working at the North Carolina funfair Joyland — “We sell fun,” says its owner — while recovering from a broken heart. “That was my year to embrace loneliness … I spent most evenings in my room, rereading ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and writing letters,” Devin tells us. He was suffering, he says, with a likably deadpan humor, from a “really bad case of the twenty-ones.”
Devin meets and hits it off with his fellow carnies — fortuneteller Madame Fortuna, who might just have a “genuine psychic touch”; owner Bradley Easterbrook, who tells his young employees that they are entering “a different world, one that has its own customs and its own language, which we simply call the Talk”; Lane Hardy, who runs the big wheel and who tells Devin that the funfair’s Horror House ride is haunted. The story runs that, four years ago, Linda Gray visited the fair with her boyfriend and ended up in the Horror House, where halfway around the ride he cut her throat and threw her out, leaving behind him just a bloodied shirt and a pair of gloves. Her body wasn’t found until 1 o’clock the next morning, and a host of Joyland employees say they’ve since seen a girl standing beside the track, wearing the clothes Linda Gray was wearing when she died.
The “Funhouse killer” was never found and, four years on, in 1973, Devin is quick to develop a fascination with the story. So there is murder, and blood, and the possibility of a ghost, and a dramatic and deadly denouement, but it’s hard not to end up more captivated by the glimpse King gives into carny life — its rich, deep lingo, where the big wheel is known as the chump-hoister and visitors are “rubes” or “conies,” which King freely admits he partly lifted, partly invented — than into the death at the heart of the novel.
Do we care more if Devin finds the killer or if he makes a success of “wearing the fur” — dressing up as Howie the Happy Hound and entertaining visiting children? Horror will be provided by King in spades later this year, when he returns to the world of “The Shining” in sequel “Doctor Sleep.” “Joyland” is a far gentler, deeper, more thoughtful book than the one it masquerades as. More a coming-of-age mystery than a horror-filled thriller, it’s closer to the tone of King’s short story “The Body” — on which the film Stand By Me is based — than it is to the author’s real forays into horror, and all the more intriguing for it.