Review

Review

Hell on Wheels: Joe Hill’s Career Turns a Corner with NOS4A2

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NOS4A2 is the kind of novel I think people have been waiting for Joe Hill to write. I think they were expecting it to come along sooner; directly after the one-two punch of 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box, perhaps, and certainly after we all found out that Hill’s dad is that Stephen King fella from Maine. Instead, Heart-Shaped Box begat Horns, a book that was something of a curve in the road, an existential left turn that was well received but still caught us by surprise.

Now, when none of us were sure what to expect next, Hill comes at us with another straight-up horror novel, a sometimes hopeful, sometimes nasty piece of work that shows he’s not only willing to embrace the genre, but fully equipped to expand it beyond its own bounds.

NOS4A2 is the story of Victoria “Vic” McQueen, a young woman who discovers early in life that she can travel anywhere she wants by crossing a rickety wooden bridge that she summons at will. It’s the story of Charles Manx, an ageless predator who feeds on the souls of children, taking them to a place of misery and darkness that he calls Christmasland. It’s the story of The Wraith, a classic Rolls-Royce that does Manx’s bidding. It’s the story of a desperate man named Bing, a good man named Lou, and a lost boy named Wayne. It’s the sum of Hill’s influences, the culmination of his growth as a writer thus far, and, most importantly, one helluva good read.

Hill’s growth, honed via those early novels as well as the ongoing comic book he writes, Locke & Key, is quickly evident. Heart-Shaped Box was a solid effort, the work of a natural talent feeling his way through the process. With Horns, it was like you could see Hill at work, sweating out sentences, rearranging words, trying to be a WRITER. With NOS4A2, Hill has at last made the transition to effortless storyteller. Instead of feeling like a work that Hill had to labor over, this novel unspools smoothly and effortlessly.

In a book this size (over 680 pages), it’s good to have a varied and interesting cast, and in this Hill does not disappoint. The heroes are flawed and relatable, ultimately likeable even as they remain miles from perfect. The villains would fit right into one of Hill’s beloved comics (Manx’s weapon of choice is a silver autopsy hammer, and Bing, Manx’s own Igor, often wears a gas mask to do his dirty work), yet Hill manages to ground them in heartbreaking reality. This kind of character work is vital to a piece of horror fiction – without it, you’re left reading the equivalent of a Friday the 13th novelization.

As people read NOS4A2, there will inevitably be parallels drawn to the work that Hill’s father has done. Whereas Hill spent the early part of his career dodging such comparisons, here he encourages them. The Wraith could be the kind of car driven by low men in yellow coats, or a distant cousin of Christine. There are mentions of Pennywise, that awful clown, and a nod or two to elements of King’s upcoming Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Hill’s own Locke & Key. Is he telling us that his universe is part of King’s, one giant playground for the two of them to stomp around in? It certainly seems that way, and I’m glad to see that he’s gained the confidence to fully embrace his roots.

NOS4A2 is a signal that Hill has settled into his own abilities, got his tools in order, and is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work. It’s an amazing burst of pure imagination, a novel that simultaneously feels hopelessly bleak and endlessly hopeful. It’s also a sign of great things yet to come from Hill. I, for one, am more than happy to join him for what I hope is a long, demented ride.

Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.

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