Author: Joe Hill
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: December 2017
NOS4A2 pushes nearly 700 pages, and yes, it’s possible to get through it between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Joe Hill is truly his father’s son, writing with a propulsive confidence while dropping just the right amount of plot crumbs to keep you eager to go down the trail.
And like most Stephen King works, the trail is a dark one indeed. The big baddie is one Charlie Manx, a serial kidnapper from the 1920s or so who thinks himself somewhat of a gentleman and disdains rudeness in others. He has created an inscape in his mind where Christmasland resides, and he nabs children in a classic Rolls Royce and takes them there to turn them into frozen undying demons. To get the parents out of the way, he employs various losers as needed. This time around it’s the Gasmask Man, an uneducated rube who is responsible for some of the nastiest scenes in the book, and who shares the very vowel sounds with the Trashcan Man. Underlings are the worst.
Thankfully Manx and his crony have a worthy protagonist to offset the narrative. Victoria McQueen can also access the inscapes, having first done so on her bike as a young girl. She has a run-in with Manx that does her in psychologically and affects her into adult life. She eventually has to come back around to face him when he becomes active years later, and regretfully, her son gets pulled into the old rivalry and risks becoming one of the rare children of Christmasland.
I thought this would be a book strictly about winter, but the dimension-hopping means that a lot of the main action takes place in warmer months. It’s also less a book about Christmas vibes than it is a book about vehicles—Hill loves him some engines, with the villain’s car a character unto itself (or more accurately, an actual piece of Manx’s being) and the hero’s motorcycle always a key part of the action. Because the book is so bulky there’s plenty of space to hint at the old King multiverse, with references to “the doors to Mid-World” and a freakish map of the United States that boasts one location of “Pennywise Circus.” (The main action draws a line from New England to Colorado with a stopover in Iowa, but “The Night Road” leads mysteriously to southern Florida. Is this a reference to a separate Joe Hill story?) There’s also a quick mention of a “cell block in Shawshank” for constant readers.
Hill goes to lengths to write a grounded supernatural story, one that he dedicates to his mother, Tabitha, who he says also helped him find the proper ending. The story is about the effects of childhood trauma, psychological health, the strains of family dysfunction, and the terrors of parenting. Vic is a compelling character who resists the fact that she knows of a seemingly impossible evil, up until she can deny it in her mind no more. But around the halfway mark a gnawing feeling began, and I realized that what was lacking in the Christmas story was enough Christmas. The references are sparse in the beginning to not overwhelm the reader, but by the end the book had turned partly into a cat-and-mouse detective story while Vic tries to escape law enforcement and try to track down her son. She goes through extreme physical trials in the third act, straining the credulity of what a normal person can endure. (“What a blessed if painful thing, this business of being alive.”) But the biggest disappointment was that the time she finally spends at Christmasland is very, very brief. I was expecting half the book to take place at a deranged carnival of snow and colored lights. Instead we get inside the heads of FBI agents and hear even more talk of motorcycles. Perhaps less is more… but I could have done with a few more scary snowmen and evil elves myself.
In the acknowledgements (which Hill says you’re supposed to read if you expect to be on the nice list) his father is the one person he doesn’t mention by name, but says “I guess I have been cruising his back roads my whole life. I don’t regret it.” Given how pointed some parts of this story are when it comes to family issues, the reader is tempted to play armchair psychologist about the King family and how the father has influenced the son for better or worse. Hill seems to have turned out just fine and come into his own as a writer. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that NOS4A2 is nearly indistinguishable from a Stephen King book. Hill hopefully has a long career in front of him, and the first few books for any author are mostly about mimicking one’s heroes, even if they happen to be part of the bloodline. It’s satisfying to imagine the grown child handing this to his parents with a “what do you think about this one?” and self-assuredly stepping back as they crack the cover.
Cover art corner: I get a kick out of how the letters in the title are raised, just like letters on a license plate are. Whether intentional or not, that makes my day.