A Symphony of Horror: Joe Hill’s NOS4A2

If you don’t know the name Joe Hill—or if it only conjures thoughts of the turn of the century songwriter, labor activist, and infamous Wobbly—then allow me the great pleasure of introducing you to your new favorite author. He’s written two fantastic horror novels, Horns (about to be a major motion picture, thankfully sans Shia LeBeouf) and Heart-Shaped Box, as well as a collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, and the comic books The Cape and Locke & Key, the latter of which is so good I’m eventually going to prise a tattoo out of it (but first I have to decide which key…). NOS4A2, a hefty tale about a vampire, a slayer, and the boy caught between them, is his latest creation, and like everything else Hill’s put his magic fingers to, it’s hard to put down and impossible to shake.

Nestled high in the mountains of central Colorado is a house of death with a hidden door to another world, Christmasland. It is a fantasy realm accessible only through the psychotic mind of Charles Manx and his malevolent Wraith, a 1938 Rolls Royce with the vanity plate NOS4A2. Charlie Manx lives for amusements and loves children (or, more accurately, loves their innocence and unconditional admiration) so boundlessly that everything else is drained away. Far away in Massachusetts lives a 12 year old girl named Victoria McQueen, jokingly called The Brat by her father. Her Raleigh Tuff Burner is her version of the Wraith, and she uses it to traverse across her private real/not real bridge to find lost things. In rural Iowa, a punky librarian named Maggie uses her special Scrabble tiles to divine answers from the universe. All of these people can tap into their own personal inscape, a place between reality and truth, a place built by and contained within their own imaginations, a place that reflects the personality of its creator.

At first glance it’s hard to see how the pieces fit together. NOS4A2 is broken into several volumes each full of a bunch of chapters (Hill continues to toy with the definition of a chapter and how it should be structured) that exist in different eras, locations, and populations. Gradually the puzzle begins to fill in, and the bonds between the seemingly unconnected characters develop and tighten. Vic and her bridge and Maggie and her tiles fall into orbit around Manx and his Wraith, and it’s only a matter of time before they collide. Vic and Manx do battle several times, each more catastrophic than the last and each taking a greater toll on those caught in the crossfire.

In some ways, NOS4A2 is a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a splash of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Yet it’s also its own dark, vicious tale spreading through decades and lives. Manx takes not only his license plate but his physical attributes and mystical accoutrements from Murnau’s 1922 classic silent film. In Dracula terms, think of Vic as Jonathan Harker, her son Wayne as Mina, Maggie as Van Helsing, Bing Partridge as Renfield, and, obviously, Manx as Dracula. But it’s not nearly as straightforward as that. NOS4A2 isn’t just horror fiction, it’s dark fantasy populated by geeks and SFF fanatics.

Like Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, China Miéville, and G.K. Chesterton, Joe Hill has the rare talent of being able to manipulate the English language in ways you never before thought possible, and in ways that are wholly unique to him. Every sentence, every phrase, every adjective, every grammatical and editorial choice all have meaning within the bigger picture, oftentimes several competing and contradictory meanings. He doesn’t tell you what’s happening so much as describe the things around it and let you fill in the details. You don’t read his work on a lark. You have to invest the time and emotional space to his novels, but the effort is worth it. He gives back as much as you put in.

Easter eggs of every shape and color are scattered throughout the novel. Amanda Palmer gets name-dropped, as do Firefly, Batman, and Supergirl. The Keyhouse, Maxwell’s silver hammer, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Pennywise the Clown, among others, are there if you know where to look. But the best part of NOS4A2 aren’t the inside jokes, the deeply disturbing plot, or even his literary eloquence. The characters take a really good book and kick it into awesome. Hill has the enviable talent of creating characters that don’t just feel real but are real. Reading his books is like watching these people’s lives unfold, as if the action and plot are determined by their personalities and experiences rather than authorial dictation. You can almost see their lives outside what we see in the book. I can easily visualize Lou Carmody dropping Wayne off at school, Vic guilt-tripping her way through AA meetings, and Bing doing unspeakable things to his victims, and not because Hill describes those things but because he’s so deftly shaded out his characters. I feel like I know them in a way that goes beyond the fictional construct.

NOS4A2 is not only Hill’s best work thus far, but a serious contender for a slot in the top 5 books of the year. Don’t be put off by its size (700 pages push it out of the easy beach read category). Once you start it, it will lash you to your seat. It is a haunting, distressing, chilling, romantic, charming, humorous, and shocking piece of work, and there will never be anything quite like it ever again. If all of that still hasn’t convinced you, then go catch him on his upcoming book tour and fall in love in person.

NOS4A2 is published by William Morrow. It is available April 30.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.


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