When I was first imagining how I would sit down and write this review, as I often write in my head as I’m reading a book, I was thinking I wasn’t going to mention that horror author Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King – perhaps until the very end of the piece. A few reasons for that. First of all, if you hadn’t known by now that Hill, the author of Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, as well as the story collection 20th Century Ghosts, is in any way related to the world’s best known horror writer, if not the best known writer in the world, period, you’ve been living in a cave.
Second, it would seem to be unfair to link Hill to King by this juncture in his career simply because Hill, at least when he was beginning to write, didn’t want you to know this in the first place – after all, he took a different surname (actually, an abbreviation of his middle name) so that editors and publishers wouldn’t give him any sort of preferential treatment. And there just simply comes a time when an author truly has to come into his or her own, so linking a writer to his or her famous father (and let’s not forget that Hill’s mom is a known novelist, too) just doesn’t seem to do any justice to his or her own work.
Does an author like Joe Hill have to always live in the shadow of his parents? It seems hardly fair. So I wasn’t going to mention it.
However, it turns out that Joe Hill’s third novel NOS4A2, or NOS4R2 as the book is called in the United Kingdom, is deftly self-aware of just who his parents are, and it goes so far to actually not only link into previous Hill works, which is one of his father’s trademarks, but actually makes fleeting at first, then obvert, references to the novels of Stephen King. It’s as though NOS4A2, which is a vanity license plate on one of the novel’s character’s car that is meant to sound like the word nosferatu, or “vampire”, marinates in the works of King by delightfully tying itself into the world of the famous horror-meister. Let me rhyme the ways.
There’s a dog that belongs to one of the characters that’s a St. Bernard. (Shades of Cujo.) There’s an evil car at the centre of the story. (Shades of Christine.) There’s a character with a major stammering problem. (Shades of William Denbrough from It.) Colorado is a major setting. (Shades of The Shining.) Children are in peril. (Shades of It, again.) A character is named Tabitha. (Novelist Tabitha King is Joe Hill’s mother.) And on it would seemingly go until, about mid-way through the book, Hill starts to hit us on the head that, yes, he is the son of King.
He does this by mentioning the fictional setting of Derry, Maine, which pops up in a number of King’s books, but most notably in It, by name, along with a name check by Hill of Pennywise from said novel, too. Mid-World from King’s The Dark Tower series is mentioned; again, by name. There is also a reference to the True Knot, which is a tie-in to a Stephen King novel that hasn’t even been released yet, Doctor Sleep. (It’s coming this fall.)
So NOS4A2 is basically a long, 700-ish page novel that is a big celebration of the fact that Joe Hill is proud of the fact that King is his father. And NOS4A2 reads in many ways, like a King novel. Thus, I’m happy to say that when the day comes that King decides to retire from writing, there’ll be someone in the family to take over the reigns and continue on the family’s dark tradition. In fact, NOS4A2 is a book that sees Hill finally become comfortable as a horror writer, and as such has turned in his best novel to date yet. This is coming from a reviwer who thought Horns was a smashingly great, but slightly flawed page-turner, but who only got through the first 60 or 70 pages of Hill’s debut, Heart-Shaped Box, as the concept about buying a ghost on an eBay-like site seemed a tad too silly for my tastes.
Reading Hill’s novels in progression has been like watching a writer come into his own, and NOS4A2 is the point where Hill seizes the pinnacle of his talents and delivers a crackling good story that largely holds up. It feels, aside from some minor quibbling, like the most complete and fully realized novel that he has written yet. So it’s little wonder that Hill felt comfortable enough to finally start making linkages and references back to not only the previous two novels he has written (The Treehouse of the Mind from Horns, the character of Craddock McDermott from Heart-Shaped Box), but also the grossly (and sometimes just plain gross) more famous work of his father.
If you read the synopsis of this book on Amazon, or any of the accompanying press releases (and I would imagine this extends itself into the book jacket copy itself – though I was given an advance reader’s edition, so I’m not sure), you’ll have about half of this book’s plot spoiled for you. So my advice is to avoid reading much about this book – just open it pages and get taken along for the ride (a pun, since much of this book is about cars, bicycles and motorcycles with magic abilities). If you really need something to ground you or give you some sort of semblance about what the book is about, I can sum it up in one word: Christmas. And, well, the power of creativity and the imagination has a role to play, too.
OK, so if you really gotta know the main plot points, I can give you this: NOS4A2 is about a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith driven by an evil man who kidnaps children so that he can steal their innocence in the most literal sense, though, if you want to draw a line to child abductions and sexual assault, you may, though Hill eventually moves away from that angle – presumably because anything having to do with sex and children is pretty much (and understandably) a publishing taboo, even if Hill’s dad got away with a scene in It in 1985 involving ten-year-olds having consensual group sex. Still, Hill mentions at one point that “around fifty-eight thousand nonfamily child abductions occur each year in America”, so NOS4A2 is, in part, skirting the edge of news culture’s infatuation with the missing child, and it seems that, early on, at least, the book is going to be a novel about the horrors and terrors that strangers do when they snatch children off the streets, in much the way that It was an examination of such almost 30 years ago.
Anyhow, this bad man, named Charles Manx, has invented a place in his head called Christmasland where he can magically transport himself, but he needs a child to do it. And his car. It’s complicated. You really need the book and its 700 pages to fully explain the mechanics of this. Now, even though Christmasland is painted as every child’s wish come true, complete with amusement park rides and reindeer – every morning is Christmas proper, and every evening is Christmas Eve – what Manx is really doing is turning these children into vampires of a sort. He literally sucks the innocence dry from them until it’s time to step back into reality and capture another innocent soul to fuel his fantasies of the perfect holiday.
A young, flawed woman named Victoria McQueen is on to Manx, and she’s trying to stop him. When we meet her early in the novel, she’s a girl with a magic bike that transports her across a wooden, covered bridge that appears whenever she needs it while riding the bike. On the other end of the bridge is whatever it is that she’s looking for – a lost bracelet, a kindred spirit and, in one case, the literal definition of trouble, for she runs into Manx and becomes the only child to be beyond his grasp. When she is grown, she has a motorcycle that allows her to traverse the bridge. And she’ll need it, too. Manx winds up, when McQueen is an adult, capturing her son so that he can take him to Christmasland and exact his revenge on “Vic” for getting away from him. But I’ve probably already said too much. That’s about half the novel right there. So I’ll stop it right there and let you find out about the rest on your own.
What sets NOS4A2 apart from a great deal of work in the horror genre, not withstanding its magic realist, almost Graham Joyce-esque touches, is that it’s a work with smarts along with its adrenaline-rushes. Hill has a lot to say about the nature and over-commerciality of holidays such as, well, Christmas (though the Fourth of July has a minor role to play, as well), and he sets out his agenda right from the very first page. In the prologue, we meet a character, a nurse in a federal penitentiary’s hospital ward, who is struggling with the notion of getting her son a Nintendo DS for Christmas. “She had fantasized having a child who would love books and play Scrabble and want to go on snowshoeing expeditions with her,” writes Hill, before caustically adding, “What a laugh.”
There’s also the underpinning notion that Christmas, in the form of Christmasland, is a sort of perversion: a holiday that seems too perfect, and is celebrated for all the wrong reasons. Christmas (in the form of Christmasland) isn’t about happiness, at least not anymore. It’s all about amusement. “It’s an idea of endless fun, endless yout … ,” Hill writes. And the children who celebrate it? “They’re just children who can’t understand anything except fun.” In Hill’s mind, Christmas is no longer about tradition or the closeness of family. It might as well be about the presents. Hardly an original thought, but still one that feels daring in a horror novel, one that, ironically enough, is about that which binds families.
What also sets NOS4A2 apart is that it’s very much a book about the creative process, and the toll that having a special gift may have on your physical and mental well-being. When Vic first takes her trips across the covered bridge, her left eye begins to throb and, if she’s lucky, she comes away from the experience with no more than a killer headache. If not, she comes back bruised, bloodied and sore, which happens more and more frequently with each trip she takes.
Later, there are allusions to her gift and her sanity: we learn that she winds up spending some time in a mental hospital due to the residue of her first run-in with Manx, and Victoria spends a great deal of the latter half of the novel appealing to others that she is, indeed, sane. I did actually find that some of this material was a little bit glossed over – the middle part of the novel where Victoria experiences what could be described as “hallucinations” by any ordinary person (presumably dead children telephone her from Christmasland) seems a little rushed, whereas Hill’s father would have spent more time lingering on this. Still, this is a minor quibble, because much of NOS4A2 is quite thrilling, even if the pacing is a bit off and the book takes its time actually getting to its destination of a Christmas-themed Disneyland, which would be a slight converse problem in the latter half.
Uneven pacing, however, is the worst sin of commission that NOS4A2 makes. This is a book with three dimensional characters that are either a little bit evil in all of their goodness (and vice versa), and a propulsive, rich plot that pulls you forward into its headwaters. It’s simply just a gripping read, and hard to put down. With NOS4A2, Joe Hill not only reminds us that he’s the son of Stephen King, he practically becomes the next Stephen King, easily filling his more famous father’s shoes.
Indeed, I predict that this is the book that makes Hill much more of a household name, even though his work has already appeared on the bestseller lists. NOS4A2 is a breakout book, it’s Hill’s Carrie, and will leave readers wondering what kind of worlds he’ll create next. NOS4A2 shows that Hill is no longer shying away from the fact that he happens to the offspring of someone who is a literary institution: it is a celebration of that fact. All in all, I can only expect that with a novel that is as epic in scope and deftly written as NOS4A2, Stephen King is one heck of a proud father, right about now.