For a guy who chose a pen name that would distance himself from his famous dad, Joe Hill certainly proves where he comes from with his latest novel, “NOS4A2” ($28.99, William Morrow).
Hill has yet to disappoint me. His debut novel, “Heart-Shaped Box,” is probably my favorite horror novel of at least the last decade. In fact, it’s the book that inspired me to write again myself after a long fallow period. I loved his varied and fascinating short story collection, “20th Century Ghosts,” and I enjoyed “Horns,” as well. In fact, my only complaint has been that, when it comes to novels, he’s not as prolific as his father. “NOS4A2” continues the trend, though there’s a bit of a different vibe to it.
Hill begins the book by introducing us to one Charles Talent Manx III, a not-so-nice old man known for wheeling around in his 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with the license plate of the title and taking children to Christmasland, a place where he’s certain they remain happy and innocent forever. We meet him in a hospital bed, aged and frail, in a coma and near death.
Then it’s off to Massachusetts, where we meet an 8-year-old girl named Victoria McQueen, Vic for short. Vic lives in an unhappy home filled with alcohol and fights – sometimes violent fights. She escapes that environment on her Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle that her father bought her and her mother disapproves of because she thinks it’s a boys’ bike. After one fight, she rides out to the old Shorter Way Bridge, a dilapidated and closed wooden structure where kids go to make out or use drugs. She’s never quite dared to go deep into it, but this time she blasts through it and finds herself exactly where she needs to be to find the bracelet her mother has lost that her parents are arguing over.
It’s only later that she discovers that the old bridge has been torn down. But every time she needs to find something, there it is, leading her where she needs to be. Of course, it’s not without cost. The more times she uses the bridge, the more of a toll it takes, giving her headaches and fever.
Hill leads us on for a while with seemingly unrelated stories, leaving us unsure how Manx and Vic will eventually come together. Rest assured, they do. Of course, if I went into that, what would be the fun in reading it?
The thing that most struck me about “NOS4A2,” at least in the early going, was how much the book serves as a sort of tribute to Hill’s father, Stephen King. Hill weaves in many themes that are common to his father’s work and, at times, almost seems to be mimicking King’s style. There are plenty of nods to his dad, both thematic and obvious, ranging from the fascination with vehicles to direct references to King’s works. There’s even a Saint Bernard that plays a prominent role.
By the end, though, the book has come back around to Hill’s world and is completely in his hands. While the first half or so of the book is a fun and winding journey aboard Manx’s Wraith or Vic’s bike, the last half is a compelling, page-turning death race to a very different kind of Hell. Hill mixes breathless scenes of chaos and action with some truly moving and emotional moments that will be sure to get to parents as the story barrels toward its conclusion. All of my early doubts about whether I would end up liking “NOS4A2” as well as Hill’s previous works were put to rest.
With his debut, Joe Hill made a very short list of authors that I pre-order without question or reservation, and “NOS4A2” keeps him firmly on that list. He’s one of only a handful of writers out there today, writing horror that I still want to read, and for my money, he’s the best writer in the genre right now.