by Stephen King

The novel is set at a North Carolina amusement park in 1973 and involves a carny who must confront the "legacy of a vicious murder and the fate of a dying child". Devin Jones, age twenty-one, who takes a summer job at Joyland in North Carolina, is a student at the University of New Hampshire. Devin is told, during his interview by the resident fortune teller, Rozzie aka Madam Fortuna, that he will meet two children that summer: one is a girl with a red hat; the other is a boy with a dog. One of them has The Sight. Devin secures lodging for the summer at a rooming house owned by Mrs. Shoplaw, a woman who knows a great deal of Joyland's history and employees. Devin's girlfriend (and first love) Wendy promises to finally sleep with him before the semester ends but ditches him at the last moment.

At the start of the summer he is placed in Team Beagle, just one of the dog-themed crews at Joyland, and becomes friends with other new-hires Tom and Erin. He works mainly with Lane Hardy, operating the park's ferris wheel. Any attempts to connect with Wendy fail and he eventually receives a heartless letter telling him to give up because she has found someone else. He stops sleeping and barely eats, spending his free time listening to music and contemplating suicide. Devin quickly realizes that he has a talent for "wearing the fur," Joyland-talk for portraying Howie the Happy Hound, Joyland's mascot, and finds he really enjoys making kids happy. He throws himself into work so thoroughly his friends Lane and Rozzie have to confront him about his failing health. One day while acting as Howie, he saves the aforementioned young girl in a red hat from choking on a hot dog. The heroics earn him the trust and admiration of the park's geriatric owner and founder, Mr. Easterbrook, along with local acclaim.

Devin and his friends, Tom and Erin, learn that several years earlier a girl named Linda Gray had been murdered in the park's only dark ride, 'Horror House,' and her ghost still haunts it. Tom sees her ghost on the ride and refuses to speak of it ever again, but Devin does not and becomes interested in the murder case.

At the end of the summer, Devin decides to take a year off from school and stay at the park while it is closed. Erin researches the murder while back at school but plans a return visit to Joyland with Tom to present her findings to Devin. She brings pictures and articles, proving that this was only the latest in a string of unsolved murders, which had never been connected by the police. Devin becomes close to a standoffish woman named Annie, and her son, Mike, who both live in a big house near Joyland. Despite Annie's lukewarm treatment of Devin she comes to like him after seeing how he makes her dying son happy. Mike reveals he knows about Linda's ghost and has a dog, and Devin realizes he is the second child in Rozzie's prediction.

Devin is able to organize a private trip to Joyland for Mike, where the remaining employees pull out all the stops and make Mike's first and only visit unforgettable. Mike's presence near Horror House helps free Linda's ghost. That night, Devin loses his virginity to Annie.

Devin returns to his boarding house, which is preparing for an upcoming storm. He begins looking through the pictures again and suddenly realizes that the murderer is in fact Lane Hardy. Lane has guessed that Devin knows who he is, and so threatens to kill Annie and Mike unless Devin meets him at Joyland. Lane traps the two of them on the Ferris wheel in the middle of the storm and is about to kill Devin, when Annie shows up and fatally shoots Lane. Devin learns that Mike had been awakened by another ghost (of a park employee Devin had previously saved), who warned him about Lane.

Annie and Mike return to Chicago to see Annie's estranged father, and Devin goes back to school. Mike dies later that spring, requesting that his ashes be spread on the beach in North Carolina by Annie and Devin.