(2013) Joe Hill, Gollancz, £8.99 pbk, 692pp, ISBN 978-0-575-13069-2
Nooooooooooooooooo! Cries the world's most reluctant reader, namely me. Not NOS4R2 even if it is written by Joe Hill. Why? Because it is almost 700 pages long! I blame the parents, namely Hill's father Stephen King who has produced even weightier tomes in the past. In fact, Hill mentioned his father in an interview on Radio Scotland last year when he referred to NOS4A2 as a big 1980s horror novel, like his Dad used to write or others from that decade - think of the works of Robert McCammon (think They Thirst', or Mystery Walk or Swan Song or Stinger) or Peter Straub (think Shadowland or Floating Dragon or The Talisman, co-written with King).
As you would expect from such a meaty book, Hill gives us a multi-character novel, stretching over several time periods, particularly as we follow the lives of Charles Talent Manx and Victoria 'Vic' McQueen, starting with a bed-ridden Manx, waking from a coma to threaten a nurse, then we have a quick switch to 1986 where young Vic somehow rides across the Shorter Way bridge which has seemingly been destroyed. On the other side she is able to find things that have gone missing, but this ability physically and mentally drains her, and on one excursion she meets Maggie, a librarian who has a similar talent and uses Scrabble letters to find things. Ominously she warns Vic about 'the Wraith', her name for Manx who abducts children in his old Rolls Royce Wraith`. Manx also recruits, Bing Partridge, a chemical plant worker who has his own share of 'bad mental health' as Frank Zappa might have put it in his 'Diseases of the Band' routine, and Bing manages to supply Manx with a gingerbread-like product after learning that Manx is taking the children to a place called 'Christmasland' where nothing bad ever happens to them as every day is Christmas Day and every night is Christmas Eve.
But being in such a perfect place comes at a cost, because it's far from perfect and gradually the abducted children begin to change, growing hooks instead of teeth . Bing, who becomes the Gasmask Man, is a great character and probably nastier than Manx, who is a bit of a one-trick pony – he does what it says on the tin, while Bing is an unpredictable loose cannon stuffed with nastiness and capable of going off at any time. Vic also encounters Manx after running away from her parents, but manages to escape, which sets the novel up for future events as Vic meets, Lou, the future father of her son, but Manx burns with the idea of revenge on Vic and years later, abducting her son, Wayne, gives him the perfect means to have it.
What you have with NOS4R2 is a plot not for the faint-hearted, and a book with vivid, though flawed characters, some fighting against drug addiction, or mental health problems, or even their weight or their own psychosis, which makes them all the more realistic, and Hill has come up with some great locations such as 'Christmasland' as well as cemeteries, libraries, bat-ridden bridges and Sleigh House, although perhaps the greatest location of all is the 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, which is a well-drawn to be a character in its own right, maybe like a certain 'Christine', but more like some other creature that sucks something out of its victims – you have worked out the number plate reference, haven't you? The 'inscape' that is the tree house from Hill's previous novel Horns gets a mention as does the town of Lovecraft from the Locke and Key comics, and there is a nod to his father's Dark Tower books as well as a mention of Shawshank Prison, that old King staple, Derry, Maine, and even a place called 'Pennywise's Circus', which I'm guessing we do not want to visit, and the awful 'True Knot' from Doctor Sleep also gets referenced by Manx.
Big. Ballsy, over-the-top, great fun to read, but not perfect like so many of those big 1980s books. NOS4R2 has already spawned a prequel comic series by Hill called Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland and the events of the books epilogue perhaps hint at a sequel, but maybe only 400 pages this time, Joe? Thanks.
See also David's review of Horns.
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