As its cover suggests, “Joyland” is a mystery with a nostalgic style set in the carnival world. Devin Jones is an East Coast college student who decides to escape his doomed romance in the summer of 1973 and work at an amusement park in North Carolina. He becomes a “Happy Helper” in a medium-sized park called Joyland. He performs all sorts of jobs — operating and cleaning the rides, working concessions, hauling trash, etc. with other workers. Quite by accident, Devin finds out that he has a knack at “wearing the fur”— playing the park’s oversized mascot, Howie the Happy Hound. He loves cheering up the little kids who are left by parents in a babysitting area by dancing or hugging them.
He is teamed with several new summer helpers, including Tom and Erin, who quickly become his friends. Another worker, Madame Fortuna, is an old-timer who is the park’s fortune teller. One day, Devin asks her if she sees his former girlfriend in his future. She replies, “No, she was in your past. But, in your future is a little girl and a little boy with a dog.”
While Devin works at Joyland, he learns the lingo of amusement parks. A shooting gallery is called a bang-shy, the customers are called marks, pretty girls are called points, etc. He picks up the nickname “Jonesy.” He also finds out that people — workers and visitors — have seen the ghost of a teenage girl in the Horror House, one of the park’s most popular rides. She was murdered there four years ago, and her killer was never found. After a while, Madame Fortuna and Lane, another old-timer, look out for Devin and become something of his new family. They worry that he is losing too much weight, dehydrating in the Howie costume and not eating because he is still broken-hearted. Fortuna gives him another message; she sees sorrow and danger in his future. On the Fourth of July, Devin is working as Howie. He sees a little girl take a bite of a hot dog called “Pup-A-Licious” and begin to choke when it gets caught in her throat. Devin dislodges the hot dog and saves her. Erin, his friend, working as a Hollywood Girl, who takes pictures of the guests, captures the incident on film, and Devin and Howie become heroes.
One day, Devin, Erin and Tom decide to go through the Horror House to see if they will see the ghost of Linda Gray, the girl who was murdered and who supposedly haunts it. Tom sees the ghost but refuses to discuss it.
Devin pays another visit to Madame Fortuna to find out if she is just a good guesser or if she is really psychic. Devin finds out that she does have some psychic power.
He also asks the boss if he can stay on through the fall working at the park instead of going back to college. He is well liked and a hard worker, so his boss agrees.
Erin and Tom go back to college, but Devin and Erin stay in touch trying to solve mystery of the girl’s death in the Horror House. They think the person who murdered Linda also murdered other girls and that he is a serial killer. Tom wants no part of their detective work; he is spooked by having seen the ghost and thinks the hunt is consuming Erin.
After his friends are gone, Devin meets a little boy, Mike, who is in a wheelchair and has a dog, just as Madame Fortuna predicted. That is fortuitous, because Mike later saves him.
“Joyland” doesn’t fit neatly with the horror novels Stephen King is famous for. But it’s a really good story, one that calls to mind old-fashioned mysteries.
Preston Braun is completing his master’s degree in education this summer and is a Manhattan resident.