I’ve been following Joe Hill’s career since the beginning. As a long term fan of his father, Stephen King, I was curious to see what his son might contribute to my bookshelves. Hill has yet to disappoint. His novels, while not as compelling as some of his father’s standouts, were well written, compelling, and showed a promise of greater things to come. Hill’s latest effort, NOS4A2 is the fulfillment of that promise. Hill has created a novel full of terror, heart ache, and redemption that is a strong contender for the best book I’ve read this year. NOS4A2 fires on all cylinders, and is a thrilling ride from start to finish and is populated with characters so full of life that I found myself putting off the end of the novel, so our time together wouldn’t come to a close. With so many books waiting in the wings, it’s not often that I feel so strongly about a story. It appears, the undoubtedly proud papa should be watching his six, because Junior has definitely arrived.
NOS4A2 is the story of Victoria McQueen, who discovers that she can find lost things by riding her bicycle across the Shorter Way Bridge, even if those things are miles away. At first these trips seem more like dreams than reality, lost in the fever dreams that always follow her trips. It’s not until she crosses paths with Charlie Manx, another traveler who uses his vintage Rolls Royce to take kidnapped children to a place he calls Christmasland that her life begins to fall completely apart. Escaping Manx’s clutches and helping the police put him behind bars for life isn’t enough to keep her safe and. When Vic begins to get phone calls from the kidnapped children lost in the otherworldly Christmasland, she finds herself in a mental hospital after setting her own house ablaze. Years of therapy and pharmaceuticals have convinced her that her trips across the Shorter Way Bridge and Christmasland and the children there are all just aspects of her mental illness, and she finally seems to be on the precipice of rebuilding her life. But Charlie Manx is back and has other ideas. Victoria has to accept the reality of the events that drove her to the edge of madness if she is to have any hope of rescuing her son, who is now in Manx’s clutches and on his way to Christmasland.
At its heart, I believe that this novel is about family. And not the idealized, sanitized for public consumption families of 80’s sitcoms where every problem can be handily solved in thirty minutes, either. Vic McQueen is damaged by both her ability to take the Shorter Way, her encounter with Charlie Manx, and the wounds inflicted by parent’s fractured and unhealthy relationship. She’s been to the edge mentally and physically and recovered, and is striving to make amends to her son Wayne. There is a earnest and resigned poignancy to Vic’s story as she struggles to reconnect with a family she’s managed to push away at every turn. She knows she’s broken and that she’ll never fix that, but she tries to bring as much normalcy to the tumult of her life as she can. It would be a white knuckle ride, even without Manx and his totemic ride.
Hill’s ties to his own family history are everywhere. From the dedication to his mother, a gifted writer herself, to the scores of references and common themes to the elder King’s body of work, NOS4A2 feels like an acknowledgement of Hill’s heritage. And it’s a welcome one. From magical bikes to malevolent cars, to outright connections to both Hill’s previous novels and those of his father, there are family ties a plenty. But don’t think for a moment that Hill is aiming for homage or riffing off his father’s body of work. He’s simply acknowledging his roots and telling a story that I firmly believe; only he could tell.
While the supernatural and horror elements of this novel are top notch, it’s the characters that really make the story shine. Vic McQueen, tattooed writer and artist with a mouth that would make a sailor blush, is simultaneously a force of nature and a broken woman who struggles to correct her mistakes, to finally connect with another person completely. Readers will not soon forget her mix of strength and vulnerability. Every character in this novel is achingly human, with unfulfilled potential and regret sharing equal space with heart and strength of character. From, Lou Carmody who loves Vic even though she is uncapable of loving him in the way he desires and stands by her through it all, to Maggie Leigh who’s own supernatural gift robs her of her potential and ability to articulate the words she loves so much, NOS4A2 is packed with men and women who will break your heart and leave you cheering at the same time.
Hill’s villains are top notch too. Charlie Manx with his gleeful fascination with spiriting children so that they will never know anything but happiness and fun is a malevolent version of Willy Wonka if ever there was one. I can honestly say I’ll never hear Christmas music in quite the same way again. And his accomplice, Bing Partridge is as good a Renfield as I’ve ever seen. Bing is a child, despite him being in his fifties at the book’s end, and Manx knows better than anyone how to manipulate a child. There is sadness in this broken, evil man’s story that actually made me feel sorry for him. He is perhaps the most tragic of Manx’s victims.
The novel rides toward its unavoidable showdown, and while some reader’s may be let down by the end of Vic’s story, I found it the only fitting end to this haunted tale of a broken woman trying to make something beautiful from the madness and horror that she found while taking trips across the Shorter Way. There’s no short cut to happiness and there are bound be accidents along the way. But it’s the journey that matters not the destination, and Joe Hill has taken both Vic and his readers on an unforgettable ride.