by Joe Hill
704 pages, William Morrow
Review by Paul Fenton
NOS4A2. The temptation might be to spell it out, and if you did that you’d almost certainly ask yourself: what the hell does that mean? But if you read it the way it was intended, like SMS shorthand, then it makes sense: Nos-four-ah-two. Aha, see? So, is it a book about vampires? Well, it is and it isn’t.
In the story’s white corner: the spunky, the rebellious, the daring Victoria "the Brat" McQueen. Vic has an unusual talent. She can find lost things, but not through detection or intuition or common luck. No, when Vic jumps on her Raleigh bicycle on a mission to find something, she is able to travel across an old covered bridge from lost to found. The bridge comes from her own mind, her imagination, but it also exists in the real world. It’s like a rustic worm-hole, winking in and out of existence at Victoria’s subliminal command. She discovered the bridge when she was young, and made many trips across it to find things which were lost, and she always returned with the missing article. The journeys take a toll on her, sending her into a fevered sweat and building up an ever-increasing pain behind her eye; then one day she gets back from one her trips, barely conscious, and somewhere along the way the bike itself has been lost.
Or has it?
In the black corner: the insipid, the malevolent, the so-polite-and-proper-I-MUST-be-evil, Charles Manx. While Vic has her bike and her covered bridge, Manx has a Rolls Royce Wraith, which takes him along Saint Nick’s Parkway to Christmasland, his own imaginary "inscape". He likes to drive to Christmasland once a year or so, but he doesn’t like to travel alone. He likes to take a child with him. With the Gasmask Man on hand to help him with any quarrelsome parents, Manx loads the child into his Wraith (and the license plate is, of course, NOS4A2) and away they go to Christmasland, forever. Something happens to the children along the way, changing them, stealing their humanity, their essential goodness. The Wraith takes life from the children and bestows it upon Manx, keeping him alive and fresh long past his best before date.
So to recap, we have a bad man who likes to take children, and a good but rebellious girl who is able to find things. Inevitably, Vic finds Manx via her magical covered bridge, and he tries to induct her into the ranks of Christmasland. She escapes, Manx is captured, slips into a coma, and dies.
I know that probably seems like a prick of a spoiler. It looks like I’ve dumped out the entire plot into those few paragraphs. But the thing about this story is, it’s big. Reading it in e-book format as I did kind of messes with my perspective on story length, but a quick check of the print length reveals the truth: 704 pages in hardcover. That is … big. It’s big because the "now" of the story takes place when Vic McQueen is an adult, has a child, and Charles Manx is back on the road in his Wraith looking for passengers to accompany him to Christmasland. All the plot I’ve laid out so far is prelude.
Despite being a big book, it rarely feels long. Certainly not dull. Vic is deeply-flawed as an adult, enduring institutionalisation and a long list of bad habits; but we’re on her side because we’ve seen where she came from, what she’s suffered through. She’s likeable, though not by any means aspirational. Hill’s writing is sharp, very readable, and his characters keep you hooked into the story.
But what about chill-factor? Would I call this a horror story? Maybe not. Supernatural, definitely, but I didn’t feel the hairs prickle on the back of my neck the way I did when I read Heart-Shaped Box. There were moments early on when I did stop and ask myself, why am I reading this in the middle of the night? Those moments were invariably inspired by scenes involving ghoulish children. Little is creepier than an eight-year-old boy with fish-hooks for teeth. But once I spent a bit of time with Manx – usually as a result of seeing things from his companion’s viewpoint, the Gasmask Man – he became demystified somewhat. Less boogeyman, more bad guy with an unusual ability.
Or maybe I’m just growing desensitised to horror as I grow older. Must remember to test this theory by watching the Ring again, at two in the morning. Alone. In the dark. With the back door open.
One thing I did find interesting in this book, apart from the story itself, was the not-so-subtle sign of intent by Joe Hill to follow a similar path to his father. I’d always assumed that Hill wanted to maintain his own identity as a writer – which I believe he does to a degree, despite writing in a genre which would place his books very near to Dad’s body of work – but he does have his own style: younger might be one way to describe it, a bit more modern, his characters that much rougher around the edges, his references more current. I don’t think he could avoid some of his father’s style rubbing off on his own work though, the same way that I can’t help being utterly unable to dance just like my dad. There’s a light sepia tinge of nostalgia which sometimes creeps into the periphery, a quality I always found present in King’s writing. That said, Hill is still able to maintain a distinct voice. Hill is Hill, and King is King.
Maybe I missed it before, but now that seems to have changed, explicitly. Because for the first time (or at least the first time I’ve noticed), Hill is referencing his father’s stories in his own book. Mid-World from the Dark Tower series gets a mention, as does Shawshank … and even the True Knot, which is reference to King’s follow-up to the Shining, Doctor Sleep.
Now, this might be little more than hat-tipping to pops, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s a bit of a baton-pass. Will Hill inherit some of his dad’s storylines, characters and worlds? Could he, for example, continue a tangential version of the Dark Tower series, something a little more like the Black House collaboration between King and Peter Straub?
The better question is, would I read such a book? Yes, yes I probably would. Because regardless of whether you think Hill is a Stephen King Junior, and regardless of whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, he possesses one quality in common with his father which is without question a good thing: he tells a good story. And NOS4A2 is a very good story.