Stephen King is a master storyteller. At this point, I don’t think anyone can deny that. But if you need proof, his short novel (not a short story, that’s not his strong suit) Joyland is a good place to start.
The plot is simple: a girl was murdered at the Joyland amusement park two decades before, and now Devin Jones is going to work with Mike (a local child dying of a crippling disease) to solve her murder and release her spirit.
At least, it’s simple for a Stephen King book. But that plot is also somewhat deceptive, since the first 2/3 of the book is spent introducing Devin and exploring the setting. This is the section that proves King’s skill. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have been tedious and slow. The long (long) discussion of “carny” slang and of the rides at Joyland would have resulted in people setting the book aside. But given King’s narrative ability, it is not only not tedious but actively interesting. I don’t know that it makes me want to go work at an amusement park, but I never wanted to stop reading.
Beyond the writing, the themes you’d expect regularly from King are all here. Physical limitations are balanced by supernatural abilities. The evil of the world is confronted by basic kindness and decency. And, as we Christians are aware, self-sacrifice for the good and salvation of another wins the day–even if it’s not always in the way we expect.
What’s more, as you can probably tell from the title, there’s a good deal of subtle reflection on joy. Never anything explicit or heavy-handed (though King can wander into those areas at times). On the surface of course people find joy at the amusement park under the benevolent eye of the park’s aged owner. Likewise the employees (including Devin) grow and mature to where they begin to find joy by bringing joy to others. Devin learns this quickly, and those who have spent their lives working for the park know this in their bones even if they don’t know how to articulate it. In the bigger picture, we see that there is joy in the world that transcends understanding and finds us even in our darkest moments. No doubt not every dying child is a ray of light and not every horrid experience carries us through to a greater depth of living, but these things do happen and they remind us that God’s Providence maintains the world for our good and for His glory. This delightful little book is just a small piece of that Providence, but it’s a good one nonetheless.