8 Thrilling Novels Set in Amusement Parks That Make It Feel Like Summer Anytime

8 Thrilling Novels Set in Amusement Parks That Make It Feel Like Summer Anytime

Tuesday, 25 July, 2023

What’s your perfect day at an amusement park? There’s got to be snacks, right? Popcorn, cotton candy, caramel corn, hot dogs, maybe one of those giant turkey legs. And rides! Roller coasters and bumper cars and a carousel and a Ferris wheel.

And, if the stories below are to be believed, there are also probably a few shady characters, unexpected thrills, a bit of romance, and maybe a touch of murder.

There’s something for every reader on this list: historical mysteries, a comedy-thriller, a few dystopian disaster stories, a sweet examination of small-town life (with a supernatural villain), and a sort-of ghost story with a tender heart.

Keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times; this ride is about to get bumpy.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Amusement Parks: Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!.


Curious Toys - Elizabeth Hand

Curious Toys
> Elizabeth Hand

Equal parts coming-of-age tale, murder mystery, and historical fiction, this atmospheric story will transport you to 1915 and Chicago’s Riverview Park. It’s got everything you could want in a big adventure: a plucky heroine, a ruthless killer, and the thrilling backdrop of the Windy City.

Meet Pin. She’s the 14-year-old daughter of the amusement park’s fortune teller, and the two of them are barely scraping by. There used to be three of them, but Pin’s younger sister has vanished. In an attempt to stay safe, Pin begins dressing as a boy — all the better to prowl the city streets as a (very charming) drug runner for Max.

Pin’s deliveries of hash and marijuana take her all over Chicago: to a jazz club, a university, and vaudeville shows. But her favorite stop is Essanay Studios, a filmmaker that cranks out black-and-white film shorts with printed title cards.

It’s all going as well as it can until a fateful day when Pin witnesses a possible murder. Summoning all her grit and moxie to solve the crime, she soon finds an unlikely ally — an eccentric artist and self-proclaimed ‘protector of children’ named Henry Darger. Can she trust him? Is he dangerous? Or merely odd? And do the answers to those questions even matter when he’s the only adult who believes Pin’s account of what she saw? {more}

Pin hadn’t always lived at the amusement park — only since her mother, Gina, started working there as a fortune-teller. Pin had been born when her mother was the same age as Pin was now, her sister, Abriana, two years later. Back then they lived in a tenement in Little Hell, the Sicilian slum on Chicago’s North Side. Over the years Gina had told Pin that her father was dead; had moved back to Italy; was mining gold in South America; had run off with the woman who owned the Chinese laundry in Larrabee Street. Until one day when Pin asked about him, Gina slapped her so hard her left ear rang for an entire day. She never brought it up again. — Elizabeth Hand


The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

It was to be an extravaganza like the world had never seen: the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a.k.a., the Chicago’s World’s Fair. Marvels from all over the globe would be on display in a sparkling White City designed to burnish Chicago’s reputation and establish it as the country’s premier place to be.

But on the way to opening day on 1 May 1893, the fates of two men became irrevocably linked: Daniel H. Burnham, the visionary, ambitious architect behind the Fair’s construction; and H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

In this gripping narrative — you’ll need to keep reminding yourself it’s nonfiction — Erik Larson has built a time machine that will whisk you back to those heady turn-of-the-century days. By weaving the stories of these two remarkable characters, the entire scope of the Fair is revealed: its optimism, innovation, spectacle, and the high stakes involved in its success.

With an unerring eye for just the right details, Erik Larson brings both Burnham and Holmes vividly to life in this unforgettable story of ambition, crime, and American ingenuity. {more}

Chicago’s population had topped one million for the first time, making the city the second most populous in the nation after New York, although disgruntled residents of Philadelphia, previously in second place, were quick to point out that Chicago had cheated by annexing large expanses of land just in time for the 1890 decadal census. Chicago shrugged the sniping off. Big was big. Success today would dispel at last the eastern perception that Chicago was nothing more than a greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater; failure would bring humiliation from which the city would not soon recover, given how heartily its leading men had boasted that Chicago would prevail. It was this big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago ‘the Windy City.’ — Erik Larson


Dreamland - Nancy Bilyeau

> Nancy Bilyeau

The heroine of this historical mystery is 20-year-old Peggy Batternburg. Sure, she’s the heiress to a robber baron family and the granddaughter of one of the wealthiest men in America. But all she wants is to work at her beloved Moonrise Bookstore in Manhattan.

But her terribly rich, and generally terrible, family has other plans.

Peggy’s sister Lydia has been engaged to her wealthy beau for far too long. That relationship needs to be locked down. The family’s master plan is to decamp to the posh Oriental Hotel on Manhattan Beach for the summer with all hands on deck, including Peggy. The two families will sun and swim and dine together. They’ll form familial bonds, the fiancé will swoon, and a wedding date will be set. Lydia’s future, and the legacy of the Batternburg family, will be secured.

What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, plenty. Starting with a serial killer that’s terrorizing Manhattan Beach. On Peggy’s arrival, she practically stumbles on the first victim, a young girl found strangled under a pier. Although Peggy doesn’t set out to be an amateur sleuth, she’s soon caught up in the crime.

In no particular order, she falls spectacularly in love, defies her family, tangles with the police, mingles with Coney Island’s underworld — and after this summer, nothing will ever be the same. {more}

The phantom city vanished an hour after midnight. The one million lights of Dreamland darkened as they always did, with a clang as loud as a cannon shot, followed by a long, wheezing gush. The rides, the attractions, the sideshows, the restaurants, the dance hall, the entire fifteen-acre fairground stretching from the Canals of Venice to Lilliput — all of it had been shut down for the night. Once they’d thrown the switch on the light panels, it didn’t take long for the heat created by the electric bulbs to dissipate, replaced by the cool, salt-flavored ocean breeze. But the smell of the fairground hung on. Nothing could drive away the scent of stale popcorn, roasted peanuts, taffy and cotton candy, fried crab, boiled corn and beer, mingling with the odor of greasy machinery and rank human sweat. That was the fragrance of Coney Island, and no one ever forgot it. — Nancy Bilyeau


Fantasticland - Mike Bockoven

> Mike Bockoven

Welcome to FantasticLand, a massive, immersive, Disney-esque theme park in Florida where ‘Fun is Guaranteed!’ — until a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane cuts the park off from the rest of the world, and its whimsical themes and helpful employees turn deadly.

FantasticLand is a dream vacation for children and adults, a magical place that transports visitors to the imaginary worlds of Golden Street, Fairy Prairie, Fantastic Future World, Hero Haven, World’s Circus, and Pirate Cove. Every detail is themed to the max..

But on September 15, 2017, the magic was washed away by the most powerful hurricane in Florida’s history. High winds and flooding took out destroyed inland businesses and left thousands of people homeless. This is the story of how social order, friendships, and humanity completely broke down at FantasticLand in the aftermath of the storm.

The story unfolds through a series of first-person interviews conducted well after the crisis has passed. A historian, a Red Cross representative, a vacationing father, park management, and teenage employees all share their accounts in voices that are distinct, raw, and of questionable reliability. Buckle up for a dark and fiercely entertaining ride. {more}

Hello, guests of the Mighty Maiden, FantasticLand’s premier family resort. I am Matt Krenk, the general manager of the hotel. The alarm you just heard was a test we are required to run by park security. As you likely know, Hurricane Sadie is off the coast of Miami right now, and we are required to test this alarm in case she takes a turn in our direction, which is very unlikely. We apologize for waking most of you. We will be providing our free ‘Fantastic Breakfast’ as a way of making it up to you — it can be redeemed starting at 6:00 a.m. Again, we are sorry to have disturbed you and hope you enjoy your time at FantasticLand, the place where fun is guaranteed.’ — Mike Bockoven


Joyland - Stephen King

> Stephen King

Although this story has the ideal elements for a King horror tale — a creepy carny, a haunted ride, a prescient fortune teller, and an unsolved murder — it’s really a heartfelt coming-of-age story. Surprisingly touching, it captures that breathless, aching feeling of summer, the sense of being on the brink of something that changes everything.

Devin, a college student with literary aspirations, takes a summer job at a run-down amusement park along the shore. Looking back as he tells us his story, he reflects that he had a ‘really bad case of the twenty-ones.’

While enduring the humiliation of his role as the costumed Howie the Happy Hound at the park, Devin develops an irresistible fascination with the Funhouse Killer, a mysterious figure who committed a murder four years before and was never brought to justice.

Devin also slowly finds himself becoming part of the community. He befriends a special young boy and his mother, connects with the other carnies, and grows up in ways he could never have anticipated. {more}

I thought it was no wonder Wendy had dumped me. Her new boyfriend went to Dartmouth and played lacrosse. Her old one was spending the summer in a third-tier amusement park. Where he played a dog. — Stephen King


Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton

Jurassic Park
> Michael Crichton

If you’ve seen the movie, you might think you know the story, but we’re here to tell you, you need to read the book.

On the page, this story has all the elements we loved in the film — characters who are intelligent, complicated, flawed people; dinosaurs that are both terrifying and sympathetic; challenging conversations about science versus ambition; and some of our favorite lines, like: ‘God created dinosaurs. God destroyed dinosaurs. God created Man. Man destroyed God. Man created dinosaurs… Dinosaurs eat man… Woman inherits the earth.’

In print, there’s time for Crichton to dig into the problems inherent in bringing extinct animals back to life. There’s the dawning realization that things have gone horribly awry, perilous dinosaur-vs-human fight scenes, peaceful moments with the most amazing creatures to walk the planet, and interpersonal sparks, romantic and otherwise — all played out in the lush, tropical jungles of an isolated island.

The story is told from several characters’ points of view, so we get to know the heroes and villains in equal measure. And you must read to the end to learn their fate! And along the way, brave the T. Rex, the pterodactyl, the stegosaurus, and — of course — the raptors. {more}

‘The reason I ask,’ Malcolm said, ‘is that I’m told large predators such as lions and tigers are not born man-eaters. Isn’t that true? These animals must learn somewhere along the way that human beings are easy to kill. Only afterward do they become man-killers.’

‘Yes, I believe that’s true,’ Grant said. ‘Well, these dinosaurs must be even more reluctant than lions and tigers. After all, they come from a time before human beings — or even large mammals — existed at all. God knows what they think when they see us. So I wonder: have they learned, somewhere along the line, that humans are easy to kill?’ — Michael Crichton

The Rabbit Factor - Antti Tuomainen

The Rabbit Factor
> Antti Tuomainen

This comedy thriller set in modern Helsinki is the funniest book you’ll ever read about accidental murder committed by an insurance actuary at an adventure park.

Our hero Henri is an excellent actuary — but a series of unfortunate circumstances have led to the end of his career.

And then things get worse.

When his brother dies suddenly, Henri inherits his brother’s adventure park. YouMeFun is filled with walls for scaling, ropes, slides, and labyrinths — everything an active person needs for climbing and jumping adventures. He finds himself among a quirky crew of employees in a brightly-colored, noisy, utterly unmathematical environment. A quick look at the financial records tells Henri there’s something fishy — and probably criminal — going on at YouMeFun. And he’s got to get to the bottom of it.

So much for his wish that everything would be sensible.

This brisk, funny book combines elements of a coming-of-age-story, a crime caper, and a workplace comedy. There are car chases, foot chases, knife fights, bodily threats from extremely dangerous people, and a body in the freezer. And somehow, even though it’s violent, it’s also gleefully silly with plenty of heart. Ï{more}

YouMeFun sprawled through the autumnal landscape in technicolor, almost genetically modified splendor. A box of tin and steel, painted in garish red, orange, and yellow, and almost 200 meters across, it was an eyesore, no matter which color of tinted spectacles you used to look at it. Presumably, the point of the brash colors and enormous lettering was to spread the joyous gospel of sweaty fun and games for all the family to everyone who entered its gates. — Antti Tuomainen


Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

In this modern Gothic classic, two boys’ lives are changed forever when a sinister traveling carnival rolls into their Illinois town. Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show is irresistible. It arrives by train, sometime after midnight, bringing Halloween a week early and enthralling Will Halloway and his neighbor and constant companion Jim Nightshade.

Will’s father works at the town library, and his love of knowledge has been passed along to the boys, who race each other to the library and discover new worlds between the covers of the books. The library — the decency and order it represents — plays a big part in the story and the life of the town.

Then one night, as Will and Jim explore the carnival grounds, they run afoul of the carnies: an illustrated man with tattoos that seem to come to life, an insane dwarf, a Dust Witch. And they see some things they should never have seen. This sets off a chain of events that threatens the innocence of their small town. Bradbury’s clever turns of phrase beg to read aloud, and the audiobook, narrated by actor Christian Rummel, strikes the perfect warm tone. {more}

The library deeps lay waiting for them. Out in the world, not much happened. But here on the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast marched on forever… This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes. — Ray Bradbury

Top image courtesy of CLIKSY CHIC/Shutterstock.

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