The kid behind the counter is fiddling with the espresso machine when he rattles off a string of numbers and letters. NOS4A2. He’s staring at the book I’ve set on the counter, a rusted vanity plate stamped on the cover.
“Nosferatu,” I say, digging the cash from my wallet. “It’s German for vampire.”
Joe Hill, son of prolific horror writer Stephen King, has proven to be a powerful new voice when it comes to modern fantasy and horror. His first book, the brilliant short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, snagged the Bram Stoker Award, International Horror Guild Award, and British Fantasy Award for Best Fiction Collection. Heart-Shaped Box and Horns were soon to follow; the former claiming another Stoker Award for Best First Novel. Locke & Key, a comic series written by Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, has also claimed its share of awards.
Now Hill is back with his fourth book, NOS4A2, and he does not disappoint.
In his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, with the vanity plate NOS4A2, Charles Talent Manx cruises highways most people never know exist, but he doesn’t go alone. Nothing gives Manx greater pleasure than whisking innocent children off to a place called Christmasland, a wondrous playground where every day is Christmas and unhappiness is against the law; a place no child would ever want to leave, though the drive is far more taxing than his young passengers can know. Manx has never lost a child he has set his sights on. Then he meets Victoria McQueen.
Vic McQueen knows something about hidden roadways herself. She has a talent for finding missing things. By riding her bicycle over a magical covered bridge, she is transported to wherever it is she needs to be. It is only a matter of time before she crosses paths with Charlie Manx and the Wraith, though she proves somewhat more resourceful than the children Manx is accustomed to dealing with.
Years later, Manx is back with a vengeance, and Vic McQueen finds herself in need of the talent she has tried so hard to erase from her memory, this time to recover her son. Thus the battle between good and evil begins.
Hill’s prose sings, and the plot moves along at a blazing pace. This is a page-turner at heart. Everything boils down to the fact that Joe Hill is an excellent storyteller. He knows how to hook his reader from the first page and relentlessly builds tension throughout his tale. I feel it is a discredit to Hill’s talent to make the comparison, but NOS4A2 is reminiscent of King at his best. Constant Readers will feel right at home between the covers.
If you consider yourself a geek, NOS4A2 will welcome you with open arms. References involving Batman, Star Wars, Firefly, Jaws and plenty more are sprinkled throughout in heartfelt and touching ways that will leave you feeling nostalgic. He also gives nods to authors past and present including Ray Bradbury, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and others for readers to sniff out. Fans of Hill’s earlier works will find references on that front as well.
Where the novel really shines is in its characters. Charlie Manx makes for a truly terrifying villain. The Wraith accents him perfectly, acting as a living, thinking accomplice. Doors open on their own; locks bang into place, trapping unsuspecting victims; the radio constantly blares Christmas music regardless of the season. In many ways, the Wraith functions in much the same way as the 1958 Plymouth Fury did in Christine, and picturing the Rolls-Royce barreling out of a snowstorm that shouldn’t exist is downright menacing.
Vic McQueen offers a great counterbalance, winning the reader’s sympathy and respect. She comes off as a strong, independent heroine who is also flawed in all of the right ways. Her motivations, as with those of Charlie Manx, are complex and well thought out, pulling the reader close to consider each twist and turn alongside her.
Some of the greatest characters in the book are actually the secondary ones. It is not often that I find myself attached to characters to the degree I was to those in NOS4A2. From a librarian with a fish tank lined with scrabble tiles instead of rocks to a mechanic who uses a monster truck tire as a playpen for his child, there are so many small quirks in this book that one can’t help but smile at them as they go by. I found myself wishing I were friends with half the people I met while curled in my reading chair, and I am in awe of Hill’s ability to continuously populate his work with such interesting people.
At 692 pages, NOS4A2 is Hill’s longest work to date, but it holds up throughout its entirety, and readers can rest assured that they will be rewarded with a satisfying ending to wrap it all up. If you are a horror fan looking for a little Christmas-laced fear to chill your summer months, NOS4A2 is a must read. And if during the course of your reading you find yourself cruising down an unfamiliar snow-covered highway in the back of a classic car filled with Christmas music, just remember that you are on your way to someplace magical, a place you will never want to leave.