I read NOS4A2 on summer vacation last year and had meant to review it sooner, but then I lost track of my notes on the book. I’ve learned to keep pen and paper handy when reading Joe Hill because invariably there are brilliant lines and passages that I want to go back to later, and I don’t want to underline or highlight in a hardcover. In this case I was lucky enough to attend the launch event at Water Street Books, so I definitely wasn’t going to mark up a signed copy.
But some of Hill’s best lines are like classic song lyrics; they stick in your head so well that you don’t even need to jot them down to remember them later. Like this one from his second novel, Horns: “Talking to her now was like flailing his hands at a storm of hornets. It did nothing, and it stung, and yet he couldn’t stop himself.” Pretty fuckin’ awesome, huh?
Anyway, I finally found my notes right after NOS4A2 was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, which it totally deserves. It was the best horror novel I read in 2013.
A friend asked me recently, “What’s the premise? Is it about a vampire?”
That’s not exactly an easy question to answer. Yeah, it’s sort of about a vampire, but not like any vampire you’ve seen before. It’s a big, deep, rich book about a lot of things. That’s why it’s so good.
The monster at the heart of the story is Charles Manx, a creepy old bastard who abducts kids and takes them to a dark fantasy realm called Christmasland. He’s your nosferatu, but he and his demonic Rolls Royce Wraith don’t consume blood, they consume souls. Children who end up in the back seat of Charlie’s car are drained mile by mile until there’s “nothing left in them but hate and teeth.”
So it’s also a demonic car story, but again, not quite like any you’ve ever read, although it does consciously riff on that and other themes frequented by Hill’s father, Stephen King, along with a treasure chest of other geek culture references and Easter eggs. It’s a fun ride.
It’s also about motherhood, and madness, regret and redemption, and the nature of art.
It’s about Vic McQueen, a tough chick who was the only one of Manx’s victims to escape, and who has since spent her life thinking she might be insane because of the things she’s seen. You see, Vic has a magical vehicle too, a bike that enables her to travel through the Shorter Way Bridge and traverse the distance from Lost to Found. She starts out using this portal to locate lost objects, and later uses it to track down Manx after he has abducted her son.
It’s a high concept, big metaphor story that never gets bogged down in all that meaning, because it moves like a high-octane muscle car.
NOS4A2 has a rock n roll heart, but I found myself hearing “Amazing Grace” while riding with Vic, because she’s fighting to keep her shit together while moving from lost to found on many levels.
One of the big themes of NOS4A2 is that we all have an inner world, and with the right tool some people can turn their inscape into an external, tangible thing that others can experience. It’s what Manx does with his car to manifest the realm of Christmasland, what Vic does with her bike to find the bridge, and what Hill does with his pen to immerse you in this crazy, dark, utterly believable fantasia.
Like David Mitchell, Joe Hill is a master of writing about two things at once with subtle economy. Check out these lines from a scene in which Vic and Lou (the father of her child) finally talk about her past at a Fourth of July picnic:
Lou was waiting for something to detonate—it was coming, any moment now—when Vic wandered over with her hands shoved down in that army jacket of hers and said, “This chair for me?”
The emotional potential of the scene is front-loaded in the setting, a fireworks display, which presents an opportunity to do a whole lot of story work with just a few razor sharp lines of dialog because of the association to her father, a demolitions expert.
“ANFO. It’s an explosive. What my dad uses to take out stumps and boulders and bridges and so on. It’s basically a big, slippery bag of horseshit, engineered to destroy things.”
“What is? ANFO? Or your dad?”
Just one example of a scene that does more than you realize at the time because of how entertaining it is. It’s also the scene that Hill featured in a great blog post he wrote about his drafting process. That post actually got me to start re-typing my late drafts in full because I’m a masochist and Joe is my Sensei.
The man has some serious chops and NOS4A2 gives him the room to use them. It’s a tour de force that finds him at the top of his game, simultaneously scaring the shit out of you and making you laugh. You can tell he’s having fun when the language can shift from the road poetry of this passage…
How she loved the smell of the road: asphalt baking and soft in high July, dirt roads with their dust-and-pollen perfume in June, country lanes spicy with the odor of crushed leaves in sober October, and the sand-and-salt smell of the highway, so like an estuary, in February.
…to this image of Vic in a leather jacket and no pants scaring away a pack of yuppie bikers just a few paragraphs later:
She raised her bottle of whiskey to them and wolf-whistled with her free hand, and they grabbed their throttles and took off, tailpipes between their legs.
We get pretty deep into Vic’s character: her backstory, her creativity, and her rough-around-the-edges persona. The supporting cast is also well developed. I adored the geeky, overweight Lou, and found Bing (aka the Gas Mask Man) at times more terrifying than his boss, Charlie Manx. But it never feels like all of that character exploration slows the story down.
And that might be the author’s greatest accomplishment. At almost 700 pages, with a story that spans decades and the breadth the continent, NOS4A2 is an epic. But oddly, it doesn’t feel like one. It’s almost like an optical illusion. You never feel like you’ve spent 700 pages slogging toward Christmasland with the crawling pace of a trip to Mordor. I suspect it’s because we flip back and forth quite a bit in both time and space. Hill even breaks chapters in mid-sentence and titles the next chapter with the end of that dangling line just to keep moving the reader forward into new places, speeding along with barely a breath to notice the transition. In the end the book itself becomes a kind of Shorter Way Bridge from Near to Far, and from Lost to Found.
Joe Hill knows exactly what he’s doing, and comes closest to commenting on it in the voice of Maggie Leigh, a librarian who uses magical Scrabble tiles for divination. Here she is about to consult them near the climax of the book:
She had a brief window in which to use the tiles, to force sense out of gibberish: a minute or two at most. It seemed to her sometimes that this was the only fight that mattered: the struggle to take the world’s chaos and make it mean something, to put it to words.