In a recent interview with Vulture, Joe Hill (along with his brother Owen King, who has written a terrific new novel called Double Feature, which isn’t horror but which reads like the best possible mash-up of John Irving and Nick Hornby, with a soupçon of William Goldman thrown in) discussed writing horror in the shadow of his father. While his previous novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, worked to define Hill as a unique voice in horror fiction, “N0S4A2 has a lot of Where's Waldo? tricks with Stephen King. It was very intentional. I thought, Instead of running from the Stephen King stuff, I'm gonna run at it.” And boy, does he: there are more Stephen King Easter eggs in N0S4A2 than in any Stephen King novel since The Tommyknockers: deliberate references to Mid-World from King’s Dark Tower series, an interesting preview of Doctor Sleep, and sequences heavily influenced by The Stand, Cujo and Christine. (Also, for good measure, there’s a reference to Craddock McDermott, the ghost at the center of Heart-Shaped Box, and the Treehouse of the Mind, from Horns.)
All of these winks to his father’s career could have derailed N0S4A2 if it wasn’t Joe Hill’s strongest, scariest novel yet. Hill’s unstoppable narrative thrust is such that the references actually enhance the work, helping to establish N0S4A2 in a larger horror landscape. This isn’t to diminish the specific, finely constructed panorama of Hill’s own book. After an unsettling prologue, N0S4A2 trades on some old-school young adult fantasy tropes – Judy Blume dabbling in the supernatural; Madeline L’Engle exploring broken families. Eight-year-old Vic McQueen, the daughter of constantly battling parents, has inadvertently discovered magic in the Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle she’d gotten for her birthday: with it, she can cross the half-real, half-imaginary Shorter Way Bridge, and find things that have been lost. Eventually, Vic suspects the truth – that the bike isn’t the real magic, she is – and works hard to construct a set of alternate memories that refute the existence of the Shorter Way.
Unfortunately, Vic’s insistence on staying in the “real” world gets more complicated when she comes across Charlie Manx, an almost ageless madman who kidnaps children to whisk them away to Christmasland, a place that’s part amusement park, part killing floor. One of the fun games the children play there is called Scissors for the Drifter; another is Bite-the-Smallest. Like Vic’s Shorter Way Bridge, Christmasland is both real and not, a product of Manx’s crazed imagination. Its – and Manx’s – continued existence is dependent upon the children he brings to Christmasland. They travel in there in his car, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with the vanity plate N0S4A2 (say it out loud, “nose…for…ahh…”); the car holds its own secrets, not the least of which being its inextricable connection to Manx himself. As it transports the children to Christmasland, they are transformed into something like vampiric demons, as Manx himself grows younger and more vital each mile.
Manx’s and Vic’s worlds collide twice. When she is a vital teenager, Vic is able to put Manx away for the rest of his natural life. Only when she is an adult does she realize fully that Manx doesn’t have a natural life … and is capable of vengeance behind the wheel of his Wraith, now that she has a child of her own.
N0S4A2 isn’t Manx’s only weapon. He also retains the services of a childlike psychopath named Bing Partridge, whose fealty to Manx is absolute. In a way, Bing is scarier than Manx; while Christmasland and all it entails is certainly horrifying, Bing’s connection to the real world makes him more immediately dangerous. While Manx spirits children away to his Lost Boys terror paradise, Binx is allowed to deal with the parents of those children. He likes the mommies, but he’s not all that particular on gender. One of N0S4A2’s most insistent themes is the power of imagination – how it’s wielded and by whom, and how it can be used for both malice and salvation. Bing Partridge represents the book’s mirror theme, the imagination of power, and what happens to those who don’t understand how to use it, and think they possess more than they do.
The novel is a visual feast, rewarding readers who continue to read real-world paper-and-ink books. Those familiar with Hill’s Locke & Key comics series are already impressed with illustrator Gabriel Rodríguez’s work. His stunning (and often unsettling) black and white art here similarly elevates Hill’s prose. Those coming into the book via the audio are also in for a treat. Reader Kate Mulgrew brings the cast of characters to life, drawing out levels of darkness in Manx and the horror of stupid menace in Bing. Her take on good-guy characters is similarly flawless; she can fall into accents very well, but it takes a special kind of reader to create distinct voices without them (and so what if she doesn’t pronounce the Massachusetts town Haverhill correctly?) Also, a novel so packed with pop-culture nerdy references (Buffy and Firefly come into the book via a character named Bilbo, and Vic’s son is named Bruce Wayne Carmody) is served well when read by Star Trek’s Captain Janeway.
Throughout, Hill’s authorial voice is assured, singular. N0S4A2 is an altogether different book than either Heart-Shaped Box or Horns, but it follows those novels logically; after those personal, intimate stories, the stage was set for a horror epic like this one. There are big ideas at play here. Hill asks what’s worse: eternal innocence or innocence lost? Are they the same thing? Is forgetting your childhood better than constantly reliving it? And at what point does getting everything you ever wanted stop being wonderful and start being awful? Amidst these philosophical questions, Hill never lets N0S4A2 ever bog down (to this end, Hill stops his chapters midway through their final sentences, completing the sentence as the title of the next chapter). It’s a horror novel – albeit one with crime, fantasy, and police procedural elements – but it’s also an adventure story, relentless and propulsive. Even after the book’s appropriately apocalyptic dénouement and more elegiac coda, Hill still isn’t done. Make sure you read the acknowledgements, and make double sure you read the word about the typeface. In the grand horror tradition, Hill understands that while evils can be defeated, evil itself might well be endless.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.