Despite its many allusions to an earlier age of horror novel, NOS4A2 (U.K. title NOS4R2) is a unique tale of journeys into new worlds of awful wonder. Joe Hill’s third horror tome comes close at times (some have argued too close) to paying tribute to those works of dread writers, including the authors own father, which heavily peppered the shelving of WH Smiths and other book stores in the 1980s.
However, this is a classic, powerful novel of many and singular character’s struggles against evil that really does incite a strong interest in the worlds and their denizens which it details. And the first of these we’re introduced to is the evil, and extremely obnoxious (and initially comatose) Charles Manx. This serial killer’s history is a tract of infamous and foul legend.
Scooping up innocent children and their souls in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, Manx has many of those traits of the vampire (hence the Wraith’s number plate). With the car as some sort of proxy to his life-force, it keeps him alive far past his natural expiration date — at the cost of the souls of the children he kidnaps away to his mad realm Christmasland. But this place isn’t what you’d think. It’s a pocket universe – or ‘other where’. A far away demented, magical and evil land as perverse as Manx, and more.
With her Raleigh bicycle a young Vic McQueen finds she’s able to travel to places, often some far distance away, that she needs to go to find things via the decrepit Shorter Way Bridge. Initially travelling to retrieve an item lost by her mother, on returning the journey has taken quite a severe toll on her. As the book progresses, and time passes, she’s made further trips – and finds others with skills similarly magical as her own, and who also pay physical tolls for such.
With a gingerbread-flavoured sleeping gas garnered via a child-like sevoflurane factory worker, Bing (who really reminded me of a less destructive Trashcan Man of The Stand) Manx has the tools he needs to embark on his campaign to capture children to take to Christmasland. But in this foul, corrupted other where they are effectively dead to the real world, and become demonic creatures with rows of razor-sharp teeth.
As you’ve likely deduced this is quite a surreal tale. And it becomes more-so, dipping from one era to another, one place of dire awe to another. Its characters, many with footsteps both in this reality and the other, are painted with a detailed brush, and given a study under the writer’s pen that sometimes feels is leaning toward being overly comprehensive, but which makes the dream-like reverie in which they’re often placed more terribly appreciable.
Vic’s arduous, challenging journey through the book (and her life) is most engaging, as is the mythos Hill weaves through. There’s reference too here for the reader with a detailed eye; small nods to horror and other books, scattered like small gems throughout his prose for those whose knowledge allows them to sift throughout.
The supporting cast of characters, as expected given the book’s length, bolster the overall story arc considerably. I got a feel on reading this novel that though it is quite lengthy, nothing is really wasted.
Vic’s primary partner, and father of her child, Lou, a man who rescues her early on from the clutches of the evil Manx, is vulnerable but interesting and paternal. The myriad of other players in this feature too share fateful threads, and you genuinely care for their wellbeing as their fate’s decided by the flick of the author’s pen.
NOS4A2 is a horror novel with a magical braiding throughout, and it’s an often evil weft of spells that’s occurring here against which the protagonist and enlisted cohorts must fight. But it’s also a novel of hope, and one which will hopefully be read by many of those who enjoy the genre, and for whom it will be an equally rewarding read, as it was for me.