Apr 15 2013 3:00pm

A Symphony of Horror: Joe Hill’s NOS4A2

NOS4A2 Joe Hill Book ReviewIf 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.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
That sounds very interesting--on to the "to read" list it goes.
2. RobertX
Wonder if the name came from the Buzz Lightyear cartoon character? Hmmmm...
Ross Smith
3. CaptainCrowbar
In case anyone didn't know: Joe Hill is Stephen King's son.
Dave Thompson
4. DKT
Between his novels, his short stories, and Locke & Key, Hill's become one of my favorites. Can't wait for this one.
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
@steven, DKT: You won't be disappointed with NOS4A2. Fan-frakking-tastic.

@Robert: Which name are you referring to?

@Captain: Yep, he is, but he and King have such different writing styles (and different interpretations of horror) that it comes off as more of a coincidence than anything else.
6. RobertX
NOS-4-A2 (voiced by Craig Ferguson) = NOS-4-A2 was a robotic energy vampire created by Zurg. He is capable of draining any system or entity driven by electrical power, as well as controlling any machine he bites. His bite (in combination with radioactive moonrock) also transformed Ty Parsec into Wirewolf. Using Wirewolf and XL, he briefly usurped control of Planet Z from Zurg and attempted to transform everyone in the galaxy into robots for him to feed on, but was defeated and destroyed. His name is a pun on the term Nosferatu.
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
@AlexBrown, do you really think they are different? I thought Heart-Shaped Box read like a King novel with all the 50s references replaced with 80s ones (which was a good thing -- I have yet to be disappointed by any Joe Hill work and this might be my most anticipated book of this year.)
8. Tim W
I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this a few months ago. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this book. Hill's work has gotten progressively better and he's going to be hard pressed to top this one.
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
@Robert: Funny, but probably random coincidence. "NOS4A2" is a pretty basic play on words.

@Chuk: Hill and King are a lot closer on stuff like The Shining and Misery, but read Insomnia or Dreamcatcher and the gap is wide enough to ford.

For me, the difference is Stephen King writes complete fantasy. The characters (especially the lobster people and ass weasels) couldn't logically exist in our world, and the concept falls apart the moment you drag his stuff into the harsh light of reality (yes, even Misery). Whereas Joe Hill's work fits terrifyingly well into reality. Vic's bridge makes logical, realistic sense, and even though it couldn't really happen, the way Hill explains it I could totally see it happening. I'm not explaining this very well because I haven't had my coffee yet. And not to imply King is worse than Hill. They are great writers playing on different fields; to me it isn't fair to either to compare too deeply.

@Tim: I saw him during his book tour for Horns, and he talked about a new novel he was working on (this is back in 2009, has to be NOS4A2), so I wouldn't be surprised if his next non-comic offering in in the pipeline. If you haven't given his comics a try, crack open The Cape. It's very much in the same line as his other stuff.
Joel Cunningham
10. jec81
i am about 1/3 of the way through this and i think it feels a lot like vintage king. they both have the same sense of humor for one thing, and like to use out-of-date phrasings like "kiddie fiddler" over and over.

it's a great read so far though.
11. BookishWorm
No, Actually NOS4A2 is a retelling of Spielberg's 1991 film, HOOK.

Charlie Manx (Hook) kidnaps the child of his longtime adversary, Vic (Pan), taking the boy to a place called Christmasland (Neverland), a place where children change. Hill even explores the same deeper question the movie does: is it ever too late to be a good parent?
13. PaulbEVAN that is...yep. that is insanely spot on. Is it weird that this makes NOS4A2 even cooler?

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