Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Everyone on the same page? Okay… Hill has delivered a deeply satisfying and literate novel in NOS4A2. He is absolutely his own man, and he’s very good. But he’s also picked up some tricks from his father. He writes children well, especially those that have some unique ability. In this case, Victoria McQueen has a special gift: she can find lost things. And this skill tends to transport her to wherever those lost things happen to be.
The book is most successful in its character development. Many a page is dedicated to the growth and transformation of Vic McQueen’s personality, as we see her grow from a young girl overwhelmed by her unique capabilities, to a mother equally as overwhelmed by her life, by those she loves, and by the maniacal plottings of Charlie Manx — owner of the Christine-like Rolls Royce Wraith which bears the license plate after which Hill names this book.
NOS4A2 clocks in at almost 700 pages, and I’m not the fastest reader, but I knocked this off in a single week. The story moves faster than a demon child wielding a hatchet. The plot has more bite than a mouthful of fishhook teeth. I couldn’t have been more excited to read each next chapter than if it were Christmas every day and I had new presents waiting for me each and every morning. (Hint: read the book and all these wonderful analogies will make sense).
Hill taps into something very poignant that surrounds the basic horror madness of blood and gore: children in peril, personal redemption, and the simple fact that humans, by our nature, are neither purely good nor purely evil, but a mixture of both. These flaws are what make characters, both real and fictional, relatable. These flaws and dichotomies are what make people… human.
It’s nearly impossible NOT to compare Hill to his father, especially if this is your first Hill book. He is not his father and this is not his father’s book, but it touches on a common Stephen King theme: how the young can accept and believe in the fantastical… and how the old cannot.
Fans of King’s It will recognize that NOS4A2 connects closely to the crazy-clown classic, and you’ll enjoy the fun throwaway reference to Pennywise. Two other characters highlight Hill’s book: Victoria’s husband Lou, who’s written by someone that clearly knows his comic book/scifi-loving personality type; and Maggie, Vic’s kindred spirit. While Maggie only claims a small portion of the story, her role is key, and Hill conjures John Scalzi with the delightfully snarky and smart repartee between the two.
NOS4A2 is a terrific story. Hill writes believable and well-built characters. The conclusion to the core plot was a bit weak, but the emotional and thematic closures were fulfilling. I highly recommend this book.
Jason and I both read NOS4A2 and had very different reading experiences. Jason finished it closer to its 2013 publication date. I read it in 2019, and that time spread may explain some of the differences in our reactions. It might be that we just approach horror differently. I am glad I read this but it was not a 4-star book for me.
Jason outlined the plot: Victoria “Vic” McQueen is a girl with a gift; she can find things, via a covered bridge that appears (from anywhere) when she is moving fast enough on a bike or, later, a motorcycle. The bridge always takes her to the place where the lost item is. Charlie Manx, who drives a beautiful and sinister 1938 Roll Royce Wraith, can also go to a location that doesn’t exist in the physical world — a magical place called Christmasland. And he loves to take innocent children there with him. When they arrive at Christmasland, they are very different beings from the ones who hopped (or were pushed) into the backseat of the Wraith. As you would expect, events in the first section of this book put Charlie Manx and Vic on a collision course, and by the end of the book, it’s Vic’s son Wayne in the backseat of that car.
Vic is a well-written, beautifully damaged character. Wayne’s father, Lou Carmody, was a first for me, an unlikely character to behave heroically, even if it is tragically heroic. Maggie, another person with supernatural abilities, is a great character who plays a small but important role in the story.
Charlie Manx speaks without contractions, in a faux-jolly way that is one of the most frightening things in this book. Charlie just wants his Christmasland children to have fun, and fun they do have, with cute games like scissors-for-the-drifter or bite-the-littlest. All kinds of things are funny, like people getting an axe through the head, or run over by a car. Isn’t that hilarious? Manx is a convincing, surreal monster.
All of that works, and all of Hill’s atmospheric writing works. There is a burned church that shows up, and a destroyed library (and it’s no accident that those are two ruins that we see; Hill’s making a point). From the backseat of the Wraith, Wayne can sometimes see Christmasland, a cluster of twinkling lights cupped in a snow-filled valley high up on a mountain. It’s all well written.
There might be too much lush and beautiful writing, though. The book clocks in at 681 pages in my edition. I think the same story could have been forty pages shorter. All Hill would have had to do is go through each beautiful paragraph, each lengthy mental monologue or soliloquy, and cut a sentence or two. He would not have had to sacrifice a single subplot of even a scene. The dense writing killed the momentum for me. I was not compelled or captivated by the story. Twice I put it down for a while and read another short book. This was not because I needed a break from growing dread… I just got distracted. That did not happen as we got closer to the end, but I read two other books while I was meandering around, with the characters, in the middle of NOS4A2.
Because so many of the characters are so good, two key players were disappointments. Bing Partridge is Manx’s human minion, an intellectually disabled man who is a serial rapist and killer. He’s a nicely written bundle of negative stereotypes. When we see Bing being manipulated by Manx, forced into the role of eager-to-please child, desperate to go to Christmasland, he is compelling, but once alone with his human victims he becomes a cliché. I understand that Hill wanted a sinister child-man character, but he could have created someone who was seriously emotionally stunted by years of childhood abuse. The low-IQ = brutish beast failed for me.
Tabitha Hutter, an FBI agent who gets involved late in the book, is a nice character, a strong woman, and a bad FBI agent. I just couldn’t get past that. I don’t want to commit spoilers, but I will say this: Vic’s Dad. Background check. Tabitha turns into an ally too quickly and too easily. Some of that word-count would have been better spent on giving her a reason to believe the unbelievable.
All that said, I never doubted that I was going to finish the book. I was genuinely worried about Wayne because the story makes it clear that anyone can die. Vic, Lou and Wayne are convincing, damaged people doing the best they can. The idea that trauma echoes down through families for generations is beautifully layered into the story.
And, the book is about 50 times better than AMC’s dour, tepid adaptation. Skip the binge-watch, and read NOS4A2 for Lou, for Vic and for the horror of Christmasland.