Being Stephen King‘s son must be a tricky thing. On the one hand, you might want to carry on his legacy as the king of horror. On the other hand, you feel the need to distance yourself and gather fame. And that’s exactly what Joe Hill does: he chose a pseudonym, took some paper, and started writing his stories. But is he any good as a writer? I tend to say yes.
Joe Hill (1972) won a long list of writing awards, including the Bram Stoker Awards. He published his third novel, NOS4A2, in 2013, and today I’m going to review it for you.
Vic McQueen is an artistically gifted girl whose imagination manifests into the real world. She can cross a bridge and find whatever she looks for. One day, she goes out looking for trouble but meets a dangerous creature with powers like her own. With his vintage car, sweet talk, and the promise of a ride to the joyful Christmasland, Charlie Manx has managed to claim the lives of a hundred children and almost got Vic too. She manages to escape at the last moment at the expense of her own sanity. Manx gets caught and jailed for life.
Two decades later, Vic has a kid of her own and secrets she can’t share with anyone. She still receives calls from dead children, asking her to come to Christmasland to play with them. Then, one night, her biggest nightmare comes true: Charlie Manx comes after her, bent on ripping her heart out. Will Vic be able to cross that bridge again and save the ones she loves?
Trigger warning: the book depicts scenes involving self-harm, addiction, and a series of health issues – both physical and mental.
A word on the main NOS4A2 characters
As a reader, I’m focused on the characters: if they are flat, I won’t give a damn about the book, no matter how attractive its idea might be. Fortunately, Joe Hill knows what he’s doing. Vic is a well fleshed-out protagonist whose struggles and strengths make her stand out. Readers can empathize with her during her teen years, when all she had wanted was a peaceful home or with the adult version of her, who tried her best to be the mom Wayne deserved.
I have mixed feelings about Charlie Manx. He did his job quite thoroughly, ruining Vic’s life, kidnapping and draining the energy out of children, and being a menace throughout the entire NOS4A2 book. We even get glimpses of his past that help us understand his actions, a part which is often overlooked regarding antagonists. But I can’t help but think he could have been more terrifying and cruel in a way that would have made him truly stand out as a bad guy. Sure, using kids as your youth fountain then turning them into murderous puppets is terrible, but I feel like they stole the show from their master.
Lou, Vic’s lover and Wayne’s father, was my favorite character from NOS4A2. It would have been so easy to turn him into a joke as the overweight, dumb Vic’s partner, but Lou turned out to be the perfect mix of calm, nerdy, caring biker man with a child’s heart. Even though he’s an episodic character, he contributed to all the book’s major events, changing their course. His relationship with Vic was heart-warming, ranging from companionship to fierce love, making me root for them both.
Highlights of NOS4A2
Even though I enjoyed the book, there a few elements that stood out to me. I’ll try to list them below without spoiling the plot too much.
Christmasland & the creepy kids
There’s something highly unsettling about children who get turned into killing machines who sing Christmas carols while they’re chopping you off. Joe Hill played the perverted innocence card really well, detailing Wayne’s descend into cruelty with subtle actions that would have turned him into a monster.
Christmasland looks like every kid’s heaven, with its colossal tree, amusement park, Ferris wheel, and gingerbread stands. Except the kids who got to Christmasland crave for human flesh and stop at nothing to get it. Every scene that took place there was so vivid, making Christmasland appear more real than the outer world.
Every time Vic crossed her imaginary bridge, I knew things were about to get interesting. The Shortaway always took her where she needed to be, even if it was a dangerous place, such as Manx’s lair, where Vic almost died as a kid. But every ride took its toll on her, making Vic unstable, afraid, and ruining her relationships. It makes me wonder what I’d do if I had this kind of gift – would I pass the bridge and, more important, would I ever come back?
Moreover, Vic’s journey also refers to her attempt to bury her traumatic memories and finally getting to accept them even if nobody else – except Lou – believed her.
From its symbiotic relationship with Charles Manx to its trademark NOS4A2 license plate, the Rolls Royce Wraith became a character itself. Mirroring the link between Vic and her motorcycle, The Wraith helped its master in abducting children and drove back to Manx after their decade-long separation. I don’t know about you, but turning a vintage car into an evil device looks like a classy touch to me.
Let’s just say that the journey to Christmasland changed Wayne and not for the best. Somehow, seeing him so twisted from his usual self had a more significant impact on me than the book’s climax. It was like a part of NOS4A2 lived on inside him. I won’t say more on this subject, except that somebody notices what happened with Wayne and does something about it.
What does NOS4A2 lack?
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a captivating book. I wouldn’t have read more than 600 pages if it wasn’t any good. Yet I would have loved NOS4A2 to scare the hell out of me. I didn’t feel any shivers down my spine, and I didn’t feel like something was at stake at any point in the book.
Maybe I’m used to scarier books, or I wasn’t in the right mood, but I felt like Joe Hill could have done more in this area. Perhaps he wasn’t aiming for a full-on horror book, and that’s all right.
NOS4A2 has been adapted into a 2-seasons show, featuring Ashleigh Cummings as Vic McQueen and Zachary Quinto as Charles Manx. You can watch the trailer for the first season below:
Now let’s go back to the initial question: is Joe Hill any good at writing? I’d say that whoever can keep me invested in a story enough to go through 600 pages is clearly a gifted person. While NOS4A2 might not be perfect or terrifying, I think it was an entertaining book that gave me a lot to think about after finishing it.