NOS4R2, by Joe Hill

This edition: Kindle

Publisher: Gollancz

Published: April 30th 2013

My rating: 4/5

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.

Slightly guilty confession time – I had an unfortunate ‘miss’ with my last attempt to read one of Joe Hill’s books. Horns got great reviews and is much talked about from what I’ve seen, but when I got around to picking it up, it ended up on my Didn’t Finish pile (for a few reasons, some unrelated to the quality). But despite this, I thought well enough of the author to be stubborn and persevere with other books, and so I bought NOS4R2. I didn’t quite manage to finish it in time to include it in my recent R.I.P. VIII reading list, but nonetheless I knew I had to finish. This one absolutely refused to let me go, and I’m glad of it.

Here’s a question for those who have read this book and also seen pretty much any Tim Burton movie… Am I the only one who was reminded of those while reading this?

To be clear, I consider this a good thing. I love Tim Burton’s movies, the animated ones in particular (in this case I am most definitely looking at you, The Nightmare Before Christmas…). Because, come on. Does this comparison not lend itself?

Story aside for a moment, the tone and themes in this book put it right up my alley. It’s like an awesomely creepy cross between Burton’s work and the best of Stephen King’s. The characters are strong, the narrative is no-holds-barred, and the end result is something deliciously creepy which left me with some pretty impressively unnerving mental pictures, both of certain characters and the best of their interactions. 

Speaking of those characters, I just found my favourite villain of the whole year. Charlie Manx is one twisted motherfucker. Seriously. I was never a fan of Christmas music to begin with. I am never going to think of it the same way again – which is kind of unfortunate timing… Thanks a lot, Joe. 

And Christmasland? Sweet Jesus, I am never ever going to Disneyland… This is where a great deal of the Burtonesque-ness came from, for me. The strength of the imagery in Hill’s descriptions of Charlie’s creepy Inscape literally gave me chills, and in the final showdown with Vic McQueen I was all but literally cheering her on… 

…I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers, but let’s talk about the idea of Inscapes here for a bit. Talk about your double-edged swords. I really, really liked the way that these abilities manifest, and the way in which they unfailingly come with a price when they’re used. Vic can’t use her psychic/creative ability without some serious psychological consequences, and the ways in which this is equally true for Maggie Leigh and for Charlie Manx, in their own ways, was deeply fascinating to me. 

Given all of this, I really wanted to give this book a five-star rating. That one missing star is due to a (small!) issue I had with the pacing; the story began on a strong note and ended on one, but I felt like there was some loosening of the thread around the middle. The directions the story took made sense, and the thread was never lost… It just felt like it took a little longer to get to the end than I’d have liked.

But let’s go back to the good points – and on to the finale, because wow. Vic McQueen made herself just as memorable for me as Charlie did, and for so many opposing reasons. She may claim she isn’t the hero in her story, but I’ve got to disagree. She goes through hell, and she reacts to her first encounter with Manx in ways that many people undoubtedly would, but she never comes across as weak because of it. I’d argue that Vic is one of the strongest characters whose story I’ve read in recent years. I hesitate to make another comparison between this and anything by Stephen King, because it might seem a bit on the cheap side, but for me the comparison is an inevitable one for the best reasons – I found myself thinking, more than once, of Dan Torrance while I read Vic’s story. Both survive a hellish experience in their childhood that shapes the person they become later, and both find their own ways out of that hell to put things right. 

It’s worth noting that there are hat-tips to King’s work in here, and vice versa, that made me grin when I caught it. Sly little crossover notes often hit my geek-amusement buttons, and this is no exception. Having gone from one book into the other probably helped, but nonetheless. I see what you did there…

So. One relatively minor nitpick aside, I loved this book. It convinced me to stick with Joe Hill as an author worth reading, and I’m putting NOS4R2 on the ‘definitely recommended’ pile. Third book’s the charm.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…

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