Book Review: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

Originally published on Geek Exchange.

A man named Charlie Manx has a special car that he uses to take children to a magical place called Christmasland. The problem is, once they arrive, they can never leave, and they never realize the horrible truth to the man and place. This is the background for Joe Hill's latest novel, NOS4A2. This novel is Hill's magnum opus, an incredible work of fiction that is equally fantastic, horrifying and utterly impossible to put down once you begin.

At some point in the 1980s, a girl nicknamed Victoria, (Brat to her father) lives in a troubled home. Her parents don’t get along, and to escape the arguments, she rides her bike through the woods, where she finds a covered bridge. It’s not really a real bridge, however: it’s a conduit that allows her to find lost objects. She’s soon after introduced to a new world: there’s certain people with abilities to enter another world, one that’s split away from the real world, and powered by their imaginations. Armed with a totem, they can use this conduit to accomplish certain things. In Vic’s case, it’s her bike. Maggie, a librarian, it’s scrabble tiles. For Manx, it’s his terrible car. When Vic and Manx’s worlds collide, it sets them on a path that’s filled with madness, terror and violence.

Joe Hill has established a name for himself when it comes to dark speculative fiction. His collection of short fiction, 20th Century Ghosts, is an excellent read, his comic series Locke & Key, as well as his first two novels, Heart Shaped Box and Horns have received wide acclaim. NOS4A2 adds to his superior backlist and it’s easily going to be one of the best books released in 2013.This novel is a long, sprawling narrative that covers decades of the character’s lives, and it’s by far Hill’s most complex novel to date. Despite that, it breezes by quickly, and it’s a testament to Hill’s ability to weave together a number of divergent characters and each of their actions without losing sight of the overarching picture.

A delight throughout NOS4A2 is the tiny references peppered throughout: Charlie Manx at one point carries around a silver hammer – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, anyone? Music titles, like many of Hill’s other works, work their way into the prose many times. There’s a character named de Zoet, which in and of itself doesn’t mean much, until one follows Hill on Twitter for a while, where you might have seen that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell was one of his favorite books. When the characters get a glimpse into Charlie Manx’s head, there’s a neat reference to Hill’s fantastic comic series Locke & Key on the map with Lovecraft Keyhole. Beyond these references, there’s also Hill’s wondrous preference for the double entendre. The titular car, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith is entirely perfect for this sort of story, while Vic’s own ride, a Triumph Motorcycle, likewise is born for the role that it plays in the story.

At its core, NOS4A2 is about a single, basic concept: the importance of loving relationships. Vic comes out of a home that has quite a bit of tension that feels typical for the 1980s (especially if one’s reference point for suburban culture is films like ET and Terminator 2), and has a difficult relationship with her parents. She eventually moves out, taking off on her bike and ending up finding Manx, who attempts to kill her. She’s saved by Lou, a biker fleeing from his own problems. With Manx apprehended, Lou and Vic become an unconventional couple, with a little boy, Wayne.

Through Manx, we see that relationships are far more important. In many senses of the word, he’s a type of vampire, one who’s sustained by the empathy and emotions of the children that he kidnaps, forging an ever-depleting pool that he continually draws upon. His helpers, terrible men who kidnap and murder in his name, are strung along in a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship of their own, one that leaves them shriveled up and ultimately, dead.

The problems don’t stop with Manx’s apprehension, and his relationship with his captured wards goes both ways: Vic, now an illustrator for a popular novel series calledSearch Engine, goes crazy as she begins to receive calls from the children of Christmasland, who are going hungry without their master. The episode forces Vic to rethink her memories and childhood, which adds in an entirely new level to the horror that she faces: while she thinks that what she experienced were false memories, they were in reality, completely true. That, to me, is something far scarier than the violence, blood and gore that we see throughout the book. It’s still scary, but Hill knows exactly where to twist the knife to crank up the temperature for his characters.

Amongst this drama is an overarching theme of modernity versus tradition. Manx, by his own admission is over a century old by the time that the book begins, frequently rails against the flaws of women in society: modern dress styles, tattoos, sexual behavior are all lifestyle choices that he feels compelled to work against, and often help him select his victims: children whose parents are deemed immoral are often the ones selected for Christmasland. On the other side of the line are the characters who inhabit of modern society. Vic is a single, tattooed parent who drives a motorcycle. Maggie is a punk-rock lesbian librarian. Lou is an overweight geek who’s willing to go with the flow, and so on. They’re products of their surroundings, and as alien to Manx as the vampire is to them. In a lot of ways, this book works with and without the supernatural elements, as the cultural clash sets up a comparably horrifying motive for Manx’s actions throughout the book.

Finishing the book, it’s easy to see the battles that are waged between the characters, time and time again. On one side, Vic is backed with her loving family, who go to extraordinary lengths to keep her safe, informed and loved. Manx, on the other hand, has his insatiable hunger and his car, and his anger and iron grip on long-gone traditional life simply isn’t enough to sustain him.

Hill balances all of these relationships throughout the novel, building up a convincing base as we follow Vic throughout her childhood and adult life, and looking back, it’s an impressive effort that really succeeds once all the cards are on the table. Moreover, there’s not a single instance when this novel is bogged down with unneeded exposition, explanation or road map. He sets the characters into play, and lets the story take over. It’s a fun, exhilarating ride.

NOS4A2 as a whole is quite possibly Hill’s best book to date, and it’s easily one of the best that will be published this year. Balancing a complicated story, incredible characters and a really horrifying sense of dread and discomfort, this is dark fantasy at its absolute peak. Hill pulls it off seemingly effortlessly, and already, he has us eagerly waiting for more.