Date started: June 2nd
Date finished: June 6th
DISCLAIMER: The copy of NOS4R2 I’m reviewing was bought at a signing event by Joe Hill. While he was very friendly, and the event was fun, this has no bearing on my final opinion of the book itself.
NOS4R2 is the story of Victoria “Vic” McQueen, a girl with a talent for finding lost things. Whenever something disappears, she can just hop on her bike (a bicycle early in the story, a Triumph motorcycle later on) and drive across what she calls the Shorter Way bridge to find it. After a particularly bad fight with her mother, Vic takes off across the bridge looking for trouble, and has an encounter with Charlie Manx. Manx is a sadistic vampire who drives a Rolls Royce Wraith (complete with vanity plate NOS4R2) and kidnaps children to take them to Christmasland, a twisted amusement park that serves as Manx’s “inscape”, much in the same way Vic’s bridge is hers. Years after the incident, long after Vic has grown up and had a kid of her own, Manx comes looking for revenge.
Right then, where to start? This is a big book. Not in terms of page count (although at around 700 pages it’s above my average for this year), but in terms of how much is packed in here. This is a dense book. We follow Vic from her early childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, along with the various other characters she encounters along the way.
Though Vic is fun to read, and a flawed protagonist I could get behind, the real star of the book for me was Charlie Manx and his sidekick the Gasmask Man. Manx is not a vampire in the traditional sense. You won’t find him sweeping a cloak or drinking blood. Instead, he feeds himself and his car off the negative emotions of children, forcing all of the unhappiness out of them on the way to Christmasland, leaving them with only his twisted image of happy innocence.
The Gasmask Man is another kind of despicable entirely. With Manx off taking the children, GM or Bing Partridge as he’s otherwise known, is left to deal with the parents. A chemical plant worker, he has access to various gases that leave anyone who breathes them in incapable of independent thought and susceptible to his instruction. It was these parts of the book that left the biggest impression on me, and while I endeavour to not give too much away, this book comes with a fairly massive trigger warning for depictions of rape.
Thankfully, there’s not a shortage of heroic supporting characters, including the quirky librarian Maggie Leigh and Vic’s long suffering boyfriend Lou Carmody. Every character here shines in their own way, and they all have an arc that plays out over the course of the story.
The plot itself roars along, which is appropriate for a book that so heavily features a Triumph and a Rolls Royce. It feels punchier than its 700 pages, and it’s paced in a way that kept me reading long into the early hours, even when I knew I had to be up early for work. Even when I felt my eyes refusing to stay open, I kept suffering from ‘one more chapter’ syndrome.
If I have one criticism (and I do, despite the unequivocal five star rating on Goodreads) it’s that there is one part in the middle that’s too fast paced. After Vic’s first encounter with Manx, there’s a hefty time jump and suddenly the character is faced with a whole new set of problems. It blindsided me a little, and while it might have slowed the pace down a bit too much, a section filling in some of that time would have been nice. Ultimately though, this is a minor complaint in a book where everything else works so well.
In an ideal world, I’d be able to cap off this review without any mention of the King connection at all. It’s fairly common knowledge that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King. King is a genre unto himself at this point, and it’s a genre that Hill so gleefully dabbles in here. There’s some cheeky references to prior King works, such as mentions of Mid-World (from the Dark Tower), Pennywise Circus (an IT reference), and the True Knot (the upcoming Doctor Sleep). It was a mention of the Lovecraft Keyhole from Locke & Key that had me geeking out the most though, and I’m sure it’s the sort of thing that will keep continuity nerds up at night, just trying to put it all together.
Though NOS4R2 is the sort of thing that’s very much in King’s wheelhouse (even the child to adult structure could be seen as reminiscent of IT) Joe Hill very effectively carves out his own voice and his own niche within the genre. Aside from the first volume of Locke & Key (I know, I know, I’m getting around to the rest) this is the first work I’ve read by Hill, and you can be damn sure I’ll be reading more in the future. This is a punk rock explosion of a horror novel, and I loved every page.
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