Horror novels can be far more of a challenge to pull off successfully than horror films. A real atmosphere of terror set at the beginning of a novel can go a long way, but at the same time there can almost be a countdown to that atmosphere’s disappearance. When an author gets it right, however, a good horror novel can be far and away more effective and haunting than a film.
THE BOOK: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill ; 2013
I will never stop singing the praises of the creepy child. Even when it doesn’t work, it still works.
The corruption of innocence and traditionally “good” things is one of the quickest ways to disturb people, and with NOS4A2, Joe Hill has ruined Christmas music forever (if you didn’t hate it already, of course).
Mr. Joe Hill (aka Joe Hillstrom King) brings some complicated ideas to bear all at once, but creates unique characters that keep the reader engaged. He also layers foreshadowing and exposition in a way that maintains suspense while imbuing the reader with his characters’ complicated histories.
We immediately jump into the story with an introduction to our villain, child murderer Charlie Manx, lying comatose in a prison’s hospital ward. A nurse comes in with a bag of warm blood for him, but splatters it all over the floor when Manx springs awake and suddenly grabs her wrist.
“Your boy Josiah,” Charlie Manx said to her, his voice grating and harsh, “There’s a place for him in Christmasland, with the other children. I could give him a new life. I could give him a nice new smile. I could give him nice new teeth.”
Without much more explanation, we move to our heroine, Victoria “Vic” McQueen. Hill has a clear talent for naming characters, and as you might imagine, Vic is a biker chick who does things her own way. We meet her during her childhood in 1986, when she escapes her arguing parents by riding her Raleigh Tuff Burner out into the woods. She comes upon a covered bridge and rides across it, discovering that it will take her anywhere she wants to go. Vic soon begins to use this “Shorter Way Bridge” to recover lost things, like her mother’s bracelet or a missing photo of her father.
Both Vic and Charlie Manx are “powerful creatives”. This means that with the right vehicles, they can bring what is inside their head (their “inscapes”) into the material world. Vic’s vehicle is her Raleigh Tuff Burner in her youth and a Triumph motorcycle as an adult. Manx’s vehicle is his 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, with the punny vanity plate NOS4A2 (Nosferatu). The Wraith is powered by the souls of children, plays Christmas music non-stop, and has a backseat from which no one can escape.
Hill manages to make the existence of these tools neither inherently good nor evil. Expository character Maggie, who can use her Scrabble tiles to find out answers to mysteries a la a Ouijia board, explains that using the tools takes something away each time the creative uses it. For Maggie, it’s her ability to speak clearly. For Vic, it turns out to be her sanity (she later exhibits symptoms of bipolar and schizophrenia and becomes an alcoholic). Manx has become enslaved to his vehicle, and in return for his quasi-immortal status, his survival becomes dependent on the survival of the Wraith.
Of course, Vic and Manx eventually meet, seventeen year old Vic riding across the bridge and straight into Christmasland. She becomes the first escapee of Christmasland, burning it to the ground in the process. She also is the one responsible for Manx’s arrest. Furious at being separated from “his children”, who he has accumulated through brainwashing and soul-stealing over the years, he hatches an escape plan years later with the help of his Renfield, Bing Partridge (no Christmas references there at all, right?). Once he escapes (from the hospital’s morgue, no less) he sets out to take revenge on Vic and her 12 year old son, Wayne.
While Manx is in prison, Vic has had a son. She’s also called repeatedly by the shark-teeth bearing children that inhabit Christmasland. They want Wayne to come play with them forever and ever and ever. Vic, understandably, goes pretty batshit in the interim.
It’s refreshing to see the evolution of Joe Hill’s ability to write complicated female characters. In his debut novel Heart-Shaped Box, I felt that he fell into the trap of glorifying women’s mental illness and almost fetishizing insanity. That may have been partially due to the fact that the book mostly took place from the viewpoint of an aging metal star, Jude Coyne, who would call the groupies he was sleeping with not by their names, but by the names of the states they came from (Florida and Georgia for example). Both Vic’s and Maggie’s mental problems are not fetishized at all, and are instead presented as the tragic and frustrating obstacles that such things truly are.
Hill also peppers his book with some fun reference to the King-family universe both from his own novels and from his fathers’ novels. He references the villain from Heart-Shaped Box, Craddock McDermott, as well as the “True Knot” from King’s sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep. Another fun reference joke? He names a main character, an FBI agent, Tabitha Hutter, which is a mixture of the name “Hutton” from Nosferatu and “Harker” from Dracula. You are too, too clever, Mr. Hill.
Would I recommend this book? Short answer is yes. I will give this warning, though, because I know it’s a major issue for me: Hill often incorporates canine characters into his books. The dogs, more often than not, prove to be familiars and act very heroically to protect their masters. Unfortunately, this also makes them common casualties of the need for dramatic tension.
You have been warned.