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 own son.
Exclusive to the print editions of NOS4A2 are more than 15 illustrations by award-winning Locke & Key artist Gabriel Rodríguez.
NOS4A2, by Joe Hill 7.5
‘NOS4A2’ is Joe Hill’s third novel, and the first that I’ve read. After discovering the astonishingly imaginative ‘Locke and Key‘, I sought out his collection of short stories, ’20th Century Ghosts’ and had relished many of his weird and twisted little tales. I eventually picked up ‘Horns’, his second novel, but have yet to read it or his first, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’.
But, when I recently reconnected with ‘Locke and Key’, I discovered that he had just released ‘NOS4A2 – and that it was wrapped up with a grisly Christmas bow. Since the holiday season was coming, and that I was 100% determined to watch the horror-theme ‘SInt’ for my Holiday season blurbs, I figured that I should request this from the library pronto.
I never thought that I would finish it in time for Xmas.
For starters, I’m a notoriously slow reader – my lips get tired quickly, you see. Secondly, I only read in transit, and that amounts to, at best, an hour a day, maybe six times a week. But, to make matters worse, ‘NOS4A2’ is relatively long: at close to 700 pages, it’s a far cry from ‘The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl‘ or any of the graphic novels I tend to focus on.
Finally, I wasn’t entirely pulled into the book. Unlike some novels (including the afore-mentioned ‘Fanboy’), this was a brick that I was sporadically able to put down. Sometimes, I even felt the need to: there were moments when I felt slightly tired, if not heavy, from reading the book, and needed to take a breather before moving on to the next chapter.
And that’s not because ‘NOS4A2’ is a poorly-written book. It would be a mistake to think that. If anything were the cause, it may be the tone, pace and/or the subject matter. I’m not sure which. It may simply be that the subject matter is bleak: it features mental illness, drug addiction, murder, rape, child abductions and all sorts of unspeakable things.
But chip away at it I did. And for every moment that made me want to put the book down, there were plenty that impressed the heck out of me or that made me want to turn the page. Joe Hill, as I’ve discovered in ‘Locke and Key’, is an extremely imaginative fellow. And while in this book he tends to follow genre conventions a little bit, he stamps them with his mark.
‘NOS4A2’ is a gritty Christmas-related story about Vic (or “The Brat”, as her dad calls her), who discovers that, with the help of her bicycle, she can travel great distances via a bridge that her minds creates – through her inscape. She uses this power to help people find lost things and meets a quirky older girl who can use her mind for divination, with the use of Scrabble pieces.
But there is another like them, and that’s Charlie Manx. A vampiric kidnapper, he has been bringing children to a place called Christmasland, where they never age, know no hunger, illness or any unhappiness. This place is a creation of his own, that he can only access via an old Rolls Royce Wraith, and which he based on his twisted ideals and notions of childhood.
Manx actually believes that he is doing the right thing. He believes that the parents he’s kidnapping from will eventually ruin the lives of their children – thus he;s convinced that he’s bringing salvation to these young ones, as well as pre-emptive revenge. Because, in the process of doing his kidnappings he also dispatches the parents in some veritably nasty ways.
…with the able assistance of his side-kick, Bing, a simpleton who will do absolutely anything to be taken to Christmasland. Someday.
When we first meet Vic, she is a prepubescent child. Her unexpected encounter with Manx would have rippling effects on the remainder of her life:: if not for this, she would never have met Lou, the man would be father to her child, Wayne. She would also end up hurting herself for the rest of her life because of him – had she never met Manx, she would likely have long buried memories of her inscape and led a “normal” life.
It was really sad to read about all the troubles that Vic goes through in her life. When we are first introduced to her, she is a vibrant little girl whose chief trouble is her parents’ rocky relationship. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of a downward slope for her. And every time that there’s a glimpse of hope, it really ends up being a mirage – a temporary balm before the next wound is inflicted.
By the time that she’s an adult, she’s such damaged goods that you know there isn’t much salvation for her. You just hope that she’ll be spared further misery, maybe even be taken out of her misery. Thankfully, she has Lou, a pleasant and patient (but morbidly obese) partner and a smart, but older than his years, son in Wayne. They are what keeps her anchored to reality. Sometimes.
Maggie, the weirdo Scrabble girl, has it even rougher. At first I found her eccentric but slightly amusing, and yet I couldn’t help but be concerned about her welfare – which proved prescient, for when we meet her again, she is in such a state (missing teeth, massive stammer, obvious signs of drug addiction, …etc. ) that one can’t help but pity her. Ouch. What happened to her during those missing years?
Meanwhile, as the heroines are having a rough go of it, Charlie Manx is given a new lease on life: Initially, he is in the hospital, dying from a condition that no one properly understands. But, equally mysteriously, he will be revived and returned to the road, behind the wheel of his newly-refurbished Wraith – and with Bing eagerly awaiting his next task.
I liked that Joe Hill didn’t tell his story linearly and began ‘NOS4A2’ with Manx in the hospital, because it made for an interesting introduction all the while providing us with a false sense of security – it gave the impression that this was his fate, when in fact it was only part of the story. However, the non-linear aspect was eventually dropped. This didn’t work for me structurally.
There was this great device that Hill used at the beginning of the book, mostly when Vic was a kid, that consisted of finishing a chapter in the title of the next chapter – which was playful in a way, and which forces the reader to turn the page. But, again, much like the non-linear quality, this lapsed later in the book, which gave us two different approaches and styles in this 680+ page brick.
I had some difficulty with the construction of ‘NOS4A2’. It really felt like two books in one to me: in my mind, there’s the story of Vic as a kid, with Manx lingering in the hospital in present time, and then there’s the story of Vic as an adult, with Manx now in the foreground. I don’t really know why they were told in one volume because there’s a natural division there. Perhaps there was no faith in a sequel?
In a similar vein, as I read the book I got the feeling of a television mini-series. I could easily see this book being translated into a five-part mini-series or a two-parter TV movie. For some reason, I simply don’t see this as a major motion picture material – but it would be a terrific television event, and would likely do very well on home video. Similarly, Hill’s dad also had books that were better-suit for the small-screen (‘It’, for instance.).
I would love to see it get produced, though, if only to wrap my mind around some of the more abstract elements. For instance, I initially had a hard time imagining the Shorter Bridge, and had to re-read that part a few times to really get a grasp on it. I’d love to see it on film. I’d also love to see the creepy children and Christmasland in all of its splendour – that would no doubt be quite the sight.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Aside from the visual displays that Hill has invented, he also put to paper some stunning little twists, here and there. One of my favourites is when Manx tosses Vic’s bike back through the bridge – it’s one of those incredibly rare moments in any fiction when the villain is actually smarter than the hero (Hollywood would have had Vic escape somehow and ride off through the bridge. No such luck here).Then there’s the confrontation between Vic and Manx, as she tries to rescue Wayne. This one was a total shocker because Hill made it seem as though she was about to get completely creamed. But he was toying with us: he made her seem in danger one moment, revealed that she wasn’t, then put her in real danger, then found a way to get her out, then put her in danger again.
What Hill did was to make the scene veritably unpredictable, and gut-churning; you can’t help but wonder what Vic is going to do with a broken back, and pity her for it. But Hill leads readers through that scene amazingly well: the fact that he gives us three different perspectives (Vic, Wayne, Bing) on the situation was brilliant, because it makes us even more involved emotionally.
The only problem with that scene is that we are consequently prone to disbelief for the rest of the book. It was a great gimmick that one time but from that point onward we know that he’s toying with us. Further to that, he makes of Vic a superhuman, a character pulled right out of Hollywood action films – one who can take enough beatings for a small group of people and yet keep on ticking.
…and she’s no Schwarzenegger – she’s a puny, 100-pound woman.
This bothered me, but it didn’t entirely ruin things for me. It sucks that Hill went with convenience instead of realism, and I found it trite that Vic would end up being a superheroine when there’s no indication that she has the ability to do this – but it’s convention, and after a while you just stop criticizing its unbelievability. Still, it sure would have been nice for him to do things differently.
If there’s anything that would have substantially improved the book for me, though, it would have been the following:
1) Drag the battle between Vic and Manx into Vic’s senior years – make most of her life about this struggle and finding redemption only in the end. I was enjoying seeing the different stages of Vic’s life and would have adored seeing more of it. Plus which it would have been something for her to have Manx come in and out of her whole life.
2) Have Wayne take Manx’s place. Whether his own antics would take place in ‘NOS4A2’ or in a potential sequel is another matter, but I think that this would have been a perfect slice of tragedy for Vic. After all, the whole story hinges on her getting Wayne back. What if she couldn’t? What if she got Manx, but never could find Wayne again? What if children started to disappear again and Wayne was the culprit? What would Vic do then?
In fact, I think that I would maybe merge the two ideas and make Vic defeat Man by the second third of the book, lose Wayne seemingly forever and then have to face her now-adult son in her later years, in the last third of the book. Or just make it three books. Given that it was already divided, you might as well go all the way.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
All this to say that, although I really didn’t connect with most of the characters, I found ‘NOS4A2’ an appealing read. It takes the notion of vampirism to another place and really twists the knife on one’s perception of the traditional North American Christmas that we’ve been brought up on and fed incessantly since the mid-20th century.
Above all else, it continues to cement Joe Hill’s reputation as a writer with some devilishly clever ideas. And while I’m not yet convinced of his ability to fully deliver a full-length novel (I’ve enjoyed his short stories and graphic novels more), I will no doubt read his previous efforts and continue to let him take me on his thrill rides.
Post scriptum: fans of Hill’s prior work and that of Stephen King’s would likely enjoy the small nods that he makes to these works. One gets the impression that he’s tying up those many stories into the same universe, thereby giving them a certain continuity. It’s a nice touch, and it makes me want to re-read and delve into them all the more.