Title: NOS4A2 (US) / NOS4R2 (UK)
Author: Joe Hill
Genre: Horror, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow (US) / Orion (UK)
Publication Date: April 30, 2013 (US & UK)
Hardcover: 692 Pages (US)
NOS4A2 is a spine-tingling novel of supernatural suspense from master of horror Joe Hill, the New York Times bestselling author of Heart-Shaped Box and Horns.
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 ast onishing – 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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher (UK)
Format (e- or p-): Print Copy
Why did I read this book: A bit of trivia – Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box was the second book I ever reviewed on The Book Smugglers. I enjoyed that book, and have been desperate for a good old fashioned horror novel (there’s something about summer and horror novels that click for me), and NOS4A2 looked like it would do the trick.
Victoria “Vic” McQueen is not like other kids. She’s good at finding things – impossible things, forgotten things, and lost things. With her beautiful, big Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle, Vic is able to cross the Shorter Way Bridge – a bridge that only exists in her mind – and travel impossible distances in mere seconds, leading her directly to the places and things she needs to find. Creating, maintaining, and crossing the bridge takes its toll, though, and Vic learns that there’s a cost for travelling roads that shouldn’t exist with her mind.
She also learns that she’s not alone in her ability.
There’s a girl named Maggie, a librarian in Here, Iowa, who can divine answers from her beloved Scrabble tiles. There’s also a man named Charles Manx, who kidnaps children in his 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith and takes them on his own private road to a place outside of space and time called Christmasland. A vampire of sorts, Manx feeds on the children, changing them into cold, cruel, ageless creatures locked forever in his imagined world of eternal Christmas Eve. When seventeen year-old Vic goes out looking for trouble on her Tuff Burner, her bridge crosses Charles Manx’s path and Vic barely escapes with her life. With Manx incarcerated and later in a coma, Vic goes on to live her life, convinced that the Shorter Way Bridge was a delusion of her childhood and grows up to raise her son, Wayne. Though Vic has her problems with substance abuse (and continued hallucinations of Christmasland and vampiric children calling her in the night), Vic is finally getting herself together and dedicated to being a better mother to her twelve year-old boy.
But that’s when everything changes. Charles Manx is declared dead and autopsied, but his body disappears from the morgue – and a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with a NOS4A2 license plate makes its terrifying way to Vic’s door, to make her pay, and take her son away to Christmasland.
I’ve only had the pleasure of reading one other book by Joe Hill before NOS4A2 – the road-travelling ghost story Heart Shaped Box, which I enjoyed but felt needed a little extra oomph to make it truly memorable. Fast forward to today, five years later, and I think that oomph has finally kicked in. NOS4A2 is one hell of a ride – a true horror novel, a demonic car story (one of my favorite tropes), and a book about relationships, perceptions, and the death of innocence. In other words, NOS4A2 is exactly the bloody, supernatural road trip I was looking for.
From a plotting and writing perspective, NOS4A2 is a BIG book. I mean that literally. Clocking in at just about 700 pages, Hill’s latest novel is monstrous in both form and in content – it’s also, by the way, SO Stephen King. I’m sure Hill gets compared to his prolific father all the time (and I’m sure that must be delightful), but there’s no mistaking how close an homage NOS4A2 is to King’s work. It’s part Christine (with the possessed killer car) and part Dark Tower/Talisman with its in-scapes and hidden worlds. It’s part It and part The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon with its emotional resonance around the power and magic of being a child…and then growing up. There’s a villain that rhymes, references to Mid-World and a Search Engine that I SWEAR is a Charlie the Choo Choo/Blaine the Mono reference. There’s a young boy talking backwards, a girl with a stammer, and ghosts aplenty. This isn’t to say that NOS4A2 is inferior, or a mere imitation of his father’s work – as Manx would chide, THAT would be a lie (and Manx never lies). Joe Hill’s take on the classic trope of childhood terror coming back to haunt you as an adult is written beautifully (perhaps even better than King’s writing, especially as of late) – and, I think, it’s a book that is set in the same universe as his father’s work. If that isn’t an homage, I don’t know what is. Hiyo Silver, baby.
I love that the book features a female lead, and that Vic is prickly and fucked up. Her childhood isn’t exactly happy – she discovers, impossibly, that she can travel over a bridge that doesn’t really exist in time and space! She sees her mother beaten up by her father (before he abandons them). And oh yeah, she faces a truly terrifying monster in Charles Manx and escapes. I love that for all of these things in her past, Vic isn’t just a sum of her mistakes – she’s a character with a painful past, but she’s determined and with every fiber in her being, she alone has the ability and strength to stand against Manx. I kind of fell in love with Vic McQueen (how is THAT for a great heroine name, by the way?). I also appreciated that the man who Vic falls in love with isn’t a controlling asshole – Lou’s a big man with a big heart (and an SFF geek, to boot), and for all of her mistakes, Vic’s relationship with the father of her child is a good one based on trust and love.
Of course, what’s a good horror novel without actually discussing the horror part? Charles Manx – vampire of the soul, with a killer car that acts as his totem and a vital piece of his existence – is as good a bogeyman as they come. I like that we get to learn a little bit of Manx’s backstory, his rationale for bringing kids to Christmasland, and the creation of Christmasland itself. This isn’t explained as some sexual deviant behavior, but rather a twisted vision of eternal happiness and youth – which is more frightening, really. Any good Dracula needs a servant, and Manx has his own Renfield in the form of a twisted fellow named Bing. I wasn’t as sold on Bing’s character, as he has his own sad past, not to mention some form of mental disability (as is revealed late in the book). But I appreciate the Dracula homage, in any case. Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, Manx’s car is a big part of the novel – Hill couldn’t have picked a better iconic monster machine for Manx. (Conversely, I *loved* Vic and her Tuff Rider, and then later in life her Triumph motorcycle – Triumph for Vic, it’s a foregone conclusion.)
While there are a lot of things to love in this book, there were a few things that didn’t quite sit right with me. Namely, the sorta blasé treatment of mental illness. Clearly, Vic, Maggie and Bing (and even Manx) have problems that can’t be waved away or blamed on magic – but in NOS4A2, Vic’s depression (and schizophrenia) and Maggie’s stammer are both hypothesized as byproducts of their abilities to travel roads unseen by others.
More importantly, I don’t think Hill did right by Vic, in the end. She deserved a better ending – a more triumphant ending. Still, I’m glad Lou plays a large part in the book and in the ending, in saving his son from eternal Christmas. (If anyone has read this book, it feels very King’s It, doesn’t it?)
All these things said, I loved NOS4A2. I highly recommend it and it is certainly a contender for one of my favorite books of 2013.
Vic leaned her bicycle against the wall, to one side of the big garage door, and pressed her face up to the glass. The garage contained an old black car with a small rear window. It was a Rolls-Royce, the kind of car Winston Churchill was always getting out of in photographs and black-and-white newsreels. She could see the license plate: NOS4A2.
That’s it. That’s all you need. The police can track him down with that, Vic thought. You have to go now. You have to run.
But as she was about to step away from the garage, she saw movement through the rear window of the old car. Someone sitting in the backseat shifted slightly, wiggling to find a more comfortable spot. Vic could dimly see the outline of a small head through the foggy glass.
A child. There was a child in the car-a boy, she thought. The kid had a boy’s haircut.
Vic’s heart was by now beating so hard her shoulders shook. He had a child in his car, and if Vic got on her bike and rode away, maybe the law would catch up to the man who owned this old ride, but they would not find the kid with him, because by then he would already be under a foot of dirt somewhere.
Vic didn’t know why the child didn’t scream or let himself out of the car and run. Maybe he was drugged or tied up, Vic couldn’t tell. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t getting out of there unless Vic went in and got him out.
She left her Raleigh where it was and went around the corner of the garage. She expected the side door to be locked, but when she turned the handle it popped open. Quavering, high-pitched, helium-stoked voices spilled out: Alvin and the Chipmunks singing their infernal Christmas song.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Last week, after reading and loving this good old fashioned – yes, Steven King-esque – horror novel, Thea put a list up over at Kirkus of her favorite horror novels (and films and TV shows) starring iconic, evil cars. Like NOS4A2‘s namesake 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith. Check it out HERE.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Exodus by Paul Antony Jones
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