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Book Review: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

The Brat was eight years old the first time she rode over the covered bridge that crossed the distance between Lost and Found. — from Chapter 2 of NOS4A2

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I finally purchased it a few weeks ago (something I rarely do anymore with authors whose work I’m not already pretty familiar with) and I’m glad I did. I think I may be reading it again.

I first encountered Joe Hill in Peter Straub’s anthology, American Fantastic Tales. and was excited to read his story sight-unseen, but I’ll confess that initially it wasn’t because of anything to do with the story or its premise. All I knew about Hill was that his birth name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and that his father is Stephen King. Since I’ve been a fan of King’s books for 15 years now, I looked for traces of the father’s writing in the son’s story. I didn’t find anything obvious: the story’s an example of quintessential magical realism, where we’re walked through the extension of an absurd premise (in this case, the narrator’s best friend being an inflatable person) with methodical care. As I’ve written here before, I often find myself feeling disenchanted with the short story format, but I liked Hill’s story a lot. It made me want to read more of his work, and not because of who his father is.

I also like vampires: they were my favorite of the classic monsters long before Twilight, ever since I bought Barnes & Noble’s 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories when I was about 12. So when I first saw NOS4A2 (in the book, it’s a license plate; a play on Nosferatu) on the rack in my local bookstore, I was immediately interested. When I finally got my hands on a copy of the book, I got a happy surprise. In this book, Hill sets his hand to some of his father’s most reliable themes — and gives readers a tale that feels simultaneously like a cousin to King’s stories and something very original.

There are two main threads to this book. One concerns “the Brat,” a woman named Vic McQueen who spent her childhood finding lost things with the help of her old bicycle and a covered bridge that only appeared when she needed it. The other is the story of Charles Talent Manx, a man who takes children to a magical place named Christmasland where they stay young and happy forever (incidentally, so does he; also-incidentally, the children develop sharp teeth and a taste for violence in the process). One day, when Vic was a teenager, her path crossed with Mr. Manx’s, and she got away. As you might guess, he didn’t like it.

As I read this novel, I thought more than once of King’s 2013 book Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining: there are some obvious similarities in the themes, malevolent forces abducting children for their life force and an adult who had traumatic supernatural experiences as a child. There are also bits of It here, where children can touch the supernatural more easily and naturally than adults. And yet, Hill takes those themes and twists them in a new and compelling way. His supernatural gifts have costs in the physical world (even for children), and his child characters aren’t as resistant to the supernatural’s darker sides as are King’s.

Hill also has unique ways of making his villains creepy and his heroes relatable. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that actually made me uneasy, but this book managed it. When Mr. Manx abducts a child, his assistant deals with the child’s parents (almost always the mother) in a unique way that really made my skin crawl. As for the heroes, well, in the present (when Vic is an adult), they include her partner, Lou, a morbidly obese comic book nerd who named their son Bruce Wayne Carmody, and her friend Maggie, a woman with special gifts like Vic’s, who maintains her sanity and keeps her contact with the Great Beyond through drugs and self-harm. Neither one is exactly your typical heroic figure. Both are genuine, likeable characters who you root for without hesitation.

This book got under my skin: the paperback is almost 700 pages and I read it in 3 days. It’s deeply creepy, very original, has strong characters and well-crafted prose (Hill has a particularly good hand with dialogue). I’d recommend it. Just be aware that once you’ve read it, you’ll never think about out-of-season Christmas music quite the same way again.

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