Published by HarperCollins Publishers, William Morrow Books on 30th April 2013
Genres: Adult, Horror, Paranormal Fantasy
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Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country.
Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the "NOS4A2" vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.”
Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble — and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s son.
“The difference between childhood and adulthood, Vic had come to believe, was the difference between imagination and resignation. You traded one for the other and lost your way.”
Joe Hill is a bit of an enigma to me. His use of a pseudonym seems to suggest that he has long desired to avoid being compared to his father as a writer and storyteller – an understandable enough wish, given the longstanding cultural popularity and relevance that King has enjoyed throughout his career. As the son of the man responsible for such titles asCarrie, The Dark Tower, and The Shining, one could reasonably expect Hill to do his damnedest to ensure that his own adventures with the written word are tainted with as little potential for bias as possible, to give the critics and everyday readers no reason to accuse him of only coasting along on the privilege afforded to him by familial relation.
Yet the man seems to me very much his father’s son, so much so that, even as a veteran King fan, I have trouble distinguishing his work from what came before. Without the name on the front cover and inside pages, I imagine it would be difficult to determine whose pen his tales could be attributed to. Nearly every one of King’s characteristic tropes and devices is used by his son to some extensive degree, from the frequent use of women as victims of domestic and sexual violence to the routine manipulation and defilement of objects and concepts traditionally attributed to notions of childhood and innocence for the sake of horror.
It’s a tad surreal, and I’m uncertain of how best to consider the similarities. Is Hill lost in the shadow of his father, left to be a passable imitation of genre (and relational) precedents despite his clear talents as a writer? Is he carrying King’s style into the future, capturing its strengths for new generations while bettering it for his own ends and professional quirks? It’s difficult to say, and perhaps there is no proper way to answer such questions.
If there is one thing that is certain, however, it is this: Hill certainly has his father’s flair.
NOS4A2, at its core, feels very much like a “traditional” horror novel, closely attuned to the usual narrative tendencies that have long saturated the genre thanks to the likes of King and Koontz: Child discovers that the supernatural exists. Child stumbles into traumatic near-death experience because of these otherworldly elements. Child becomes bitter, emotionally scarred adult who staunchly refuses to accept the past’s paranormal truths. Adult is forced to confront both the ghosts of childhood (literally and figuratively) and his/her own character flaws when the evil entity of long ago returns…
…and, in the process, be subjected to a great deal of general weirdness.
Really, NOS4A2 is a predictable enough read. If you have any experience with King or literary horror, you will like as not know exactly where the story is heading most of the time. Only the details are left to the unknown, and they are mostly not significant enough to cause any sort of notable deviation in the narrative’s formula.
Still, it is the details that make the ride fun. Like his father, Hill revels in absurdity, playing with ideas that can be at once disturbing and laughable, uncomfortable and in downright bad taste. For the most part, he walks this fine line with aplomb, creating scenes that really should not work as effectively as they do. When your villain and general atmosphere of fright are based around Christmas carols, towns made of candy, and sentient cars, one is going to see an inherent and unavoidable silliness consistently at work. Yet Hill is able to craft his ridiculous notions in such a way that they manage to, despite everything, unsettle you. Here the medium is a clear strength: I sincerely doubt that a film, no matter how carefully shot or composed, would be able to present incidents of hook-mouthed children and jolly sentient moons in a manner that was not laughable or campy. In the format of the written word, however, the strangeness is almost charming in its excess, and provides enough genuinely spooky moments to be effective so long as one does not dwell on them for too long.
And regardless of circumstance, Hill does know how to craft serviceable enough characters. The plot’s general adherence to convention ensures that most of them fit squarely into a stereotypical personality and role (the aforementioned damaged-child-turned-resentful-adult, the innocent-son/daughter-as-victim, the lecherous-law-enforcement-type-who-must-accept-the-impossibilities-of-the-case, and so on), but they are all written with enough detail and relative depth (as much as possible in these sorts of cut-and-dry plots, anyway) to be interesting. So, while none of them may be particularly memorable, it is at the very least not difficult to stick with them through their journeys for several hundred pages, and to feel a degree of satisfaction at their eventual resolutions.
My largest issue stems from the way that NOS4A2 treats its female characters. As is typical to the genre, women in the narrative are routinely subjected to physical (rape) and emotional (verbal shaming) abuse by men on both moral sides. While Vic is given the central role and is able to further her goals without the constant need for a masculine counterpart (her significant other, in fact, is much more closely attuned to the “damsel in distress” cliche than she ever is), much attention is still given to how her life and very being is based upon such figures as her father and lover. She frequently bases her worth upon her relationships to these men, and how well she has fulfilled the traditional roles of daughter, wife and mother. Several other female characters, meanwhile, are used as nothing more than fodder, degraded and abused purely to amplify the story’s disturbing traits and give the villains an excuse to act monstrous.
Horror has long used women in a variety of degrading ways, and while Hill certainly does not come across as some purposefully sexist storyteller, his reliance on the genre’s misogynistic tendencies is unfortunate. Whenever the plot’s sense of the macabre pushes things a tad too far, it is uniformly when severely crippled or dead women are involved. Can we not craft scares without resorting to such measures?
Still, there is plenty to like about NOS4A2, and anyone who enjoys these sorts of works will find events entertaining enough. Despite its length, the pages turn quickly, and events move briskly enough to keep the occasional lull brief. Turning the commercialized Christmas season into a playground ripe for terror is no easy task, and Hill proves himself largely capable of the feat.
Though I’m still not entirely convinced that any sort of architecture incorporating gumdrops into its structural design can truly be all that frightening.