Wednesday, July 10, 2013

*NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2013
692 pp


Well, this book might not be the best work of horror I've ever read, but it's certainly one I couldn't stop reading until I'd finished.  Considering its length of nearly 700 pages, it's the perfect summer read.  If you're a fan of Stephen King, you'll also notice that NOS4A2 is chock full of elements from King's novels.  I'm not a huge fan of mainstream horror, but I predict that this book is going to be a runaway best seller.

I can't go too much into plot here because I don't want to wreck things for anyone.  The novel begins with a brief prologue where one of the main themes emerges. A nurse who works at a prison hospital ward is considering whether or not she should buy her son a Nintendo DS. She's held out as long as she could, because she doesn't like how
 "little boys disappeared into the glowing screen, ditching the real world for some province of the imagination where fun replaced thought and inventing creative new kills was an art form. She had fantasized about having a child who would love books and play Scrabble and want to go on snowshoeing expeditions with her. What a laugh."
I won't explain how this idea carries through, but you'll see.

As the story gets rolling, Victoria McQueen, aka "Vic" or "the brat" is a young girl from a less-than-perfect family, but she has a secret:  when something is lost, she can ride her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike across the nearby Shortway Bridge and find it.  That doesn't seem like much of a big deal, but once inside the bridge, she is delivered to the place where she will find what she seeks -- wherever it is.  The journeys take their toll on her, both mentally and physically so she only goes through the bridge and back a limited number of times. As a teen, one ride in particular changes her life forever -- after some major trouble with mom at home, she takes her bike through the bridge, only to run smack into Charlie Manx, a truly evil man who is responsible for a large number of children disappearing.  Luckily Vic didn't end up as another missing person, but the encounter leaves psychological trauma and scars she can never escape -- and comes back to haunt some years later.

Now, this description may not sound much like a horror novel, but that's a barebones outline of the main plot.  Where it gets fun is in how Joe Hill constructs a horror story around it.  The very first scene scared the bejesus out of me -- and I was thinking that if this is how the first chapter's going to go, I'm belting myself in for one wild and scary ride.  Manx drives an old Rolls Royce Wraith (with a license plate reading  NOS4A2), and he uses his car to whisk away kidnapped children to a place called Christmasland, a place that totally perverts the idea of a child's innocent and magical joy associated with the holiday.  Like Vic's bridge, Christmasland is part of  Manx's  inner landscape ("inscape"), conjured up in his thoughts but real all the same.  Once the children are there,  they become his for eternity.   He literally sucks the innocence right out of them, a vampirish act that he justifies by his sincere belief that he is saving them. Manx's partner is a bizarre character named Bing  who works with gases dentists use and who reminded me very much of The Trashcan Man from Stephen King's The Stand (especially when Bing pledges "my life for you" much as Trashcan Man did for Randall Flagg). Bing is a damaged loony who finds Manx through an ad he found about employment at Christmasland in an old pulp novel that belonged to his father.  Bing himself had had a special Christmas in his own life one year, receiving a Korean War gasmask and playing games where he killed his mother and father, and was so happy that he wonders what he would do to feel like that all of the time.  He's so out there that he sends in money to advertisers in books that are older than he is, yet unlike the other ads of bygone days, he actually receives an answer from Christmasland.  Other major characters include Maggie, who reads scrabble tiles that give her certain abilities (again at costs both mental and physical), Lou, a big man/child who loves motorcycles, Star Wars and superheroes,  and Wayne, the son of Vic and Lou.

I actually found this book less  horror-creepy than psychologically disturbing.  Children are abducted from their homes and separated from parents whose resistance is weakened to zero when Bing starts the gas flowing.  The parents meet horrible fates as well; luckily the author doesn't give blow-by-blow accounts but what he writes is terrifying enough. While the dustjacket gives ample warning, some of what happens to these parents is just downright chilling and not fun to think about afterwards. There's also enough fast-paced action in this book to keep thrill-ride readers happy.  But speaking of pacing, I found this book to be a bit uneven at times -- especially toward the end where the action happens so quickly in contrast to the rest of the story.

For a summer read, I had mixed feelings: I found it to be awesome but incredibly disturbing both while I was reading and afterward. That doesn't mean I didn't like it ... au contraire ... as sick as it was sometimes, I couldn't put this book down.  It was also fun finding references to various Stephen King novels throughout the novel and I was even more overjoyed to find a brief extension of the story in the notes on the type (don't miss it).  Recommended.

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