A few years ago (that would have been in 2000 or 2001), I bought a little chapbook of about 20 pages or so. It was a very short story titled Better Than Home and it was written by a guy named Joe Hill. I had no clue who he was but I enjoyed the story; it wasn’t horror or crime fiction, just a simple tale told from the perspective of a young boy who might be autistic or just a bit on the obsessive compulsive side of things. The kid’s narration of his everyday life –including his anxiety moments and his different quirks—kept me interested right from the first sentence until the last one. It was a very short story but after that I was willing and ready to read anything else that this Joe Hill guy would write.
A few years later, in 2005, I had that chance when Hill’s short story collection 20th Century Ghosts was published. Not only did the writing proved to be superior than in Better Than Home, it was the range of styles of the stories that impressed me; actually, Hill was so good in so many ways –characterization, dialogue, settings, atmosphere, intensity—that I recommended the book to everyone I know. I just couldn’t wait to read his first novel.
It came as a book titled Heart-Shaped Box and was published in 2007. Even though it received much praise –and later, even some important awards like the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards for Best First Novel ), the book disappointed me a little. I didn’t hate it; I actually enjoyed most of it but my expectations must have been too high. I was convinced that it wasn’t Hill at his best. His fault for writing great short fiction, I guess!
Then his second novel was published, in 2010: Horns. I bought it because a friend recommended it but I was afraid it wouldn’t meet my expectations again; I almost wished it was a short story collection. Anyway, it stayed in my TBR pile for a while. Now it’s been recently adapted into a movie starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe. I want to watch it, so I’ll read the book first.
Now I’m getting to the point of this post, my review of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, a new novel that was published in 2013. I’d heard about it and was very interested by that story. So when Trish, at TLC Book Tours, asked if I wanted to review this book, I had already stumbled upon it at my local library and decided to pick it up instead of the other book I was looking for (a good thing because the American and Canadian posts are not very reliable; I still haven’t received the copy that Trish sent my way).
For those who prefer the short reviews, I’ll tell you right now that NOS4A2 is definitely the scariest, and one of the most entertaining, books of the year –all genres included. Joe Hill rides a motorcycle from Hell, the engine running on full-tilt terror. Hold on tight because you’ll be meeting Charlie Talent Manx, the craziest and most dangerous character in the horror genre since Pennywise the clown in Stephen King’s It.
Manx is somewhere a little over 100 years old but when everything is going well for him, he looks like a man nearing middle age. His secret? He kidnaps kids in his vintage 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith (with vanity plate NOS4A2), brings them to Christmasland through roads only he knows about, and uses their youth to stay young himself. You could say he’s the sort of vampire who sucks the energy and everything that is pure out of kids. Still, the kids stay alive and…well, I won’t tell you everything; what fun would that be? Although I’ll let you know about Victoria “Vic” McQueen, the only kid who ever escaped from Manx; now a woman, Vic also has secret roads of her own, and she will again cross paths with Manx. They both have something that the other wants.
What is this place called Christmasland, and where is it? Early on in the book, Manx explains to his minion, Bing Partridge “The road to Christmasland is paved in dreams. This old car can slip right out of everyday world and onto the secret roads of thought. Sleep is just the exit ramp. When a passenger dozes off, my Wraith leaves whatever road it was on and slides onto the St. Nick Parkway”.
All through the book, Hill proves his brilliant and imaginative mind with the creation of a fascinating yet mostly frightening world where you find places such as the Shorter Way Bridge, the Orphanhenge, the Treehouse of the Mind, the House of Sleep, and the creepiest (and saddest) of all, the Graveyard of What Might Be.
The writing slices through the story, as sharp as a vampire’s fang piercing tender and warm meat; the images ooze as vividly as blood on pale skin. But they leave their mark in the reader’s brain. The ending itself (the last 45 pages or so) is worth the price of the book; Hill's descriptions will pull you into the landscape of Manx's and Vic's worlds. I guarantee that this story will touch you in many ways, as it might also change--at least temporarily--your view of the Christmas season; I dare you to read the book and not feel a chill the next time you'll hear Christmas music. The life inside your perfect little snow globe world will be shaken, turned upside down, and then thrown on the walls of your mind.
The glass will stay permanently cracked.
I should know because when my kids recently started practising Christmas songs on the piano, Charles Talent Manx visited me in his Wraith, smiling and showing his pointy, crooked teeth while telling me he thought my sons would enjoy Christmasland…that they’d be really happy there; and that he’d take really good care of them, as he does with his own children.
That’s when I dropped the family snow globe on the floor. I picked it up. It was cracked and leaking a little…
I looked up, Manx was gone. When the house is quiet --which doesn’t happen often when you have kids, especially boys—I swear I can hear his laughter echoing in my head. And Christmas carols too.
Rating: NOS4A2 is on my list of naughty good books of 2013. In my usual rating system (for what it's worth), I give it 4 ½ thumbprints. Up there with some of the best horror novels his father ever wrote. If Hill has ever felt he was writing in his father's shadow, he definitely stepped out of it now and he's creating his own impressive shadow in the horror genre.
P.S.: If you’re a Stephen King reader, you’ll find many references to some of his stories while reading NOS4A2 (from The Stand, Doctor Sleep, It, Cujo, Christine, From A Buick 8, The Dark Tower series, The Talisman, and probably others that I missed). It just adds a bit of fun.
P.P.S.: One disappointment I have is that I didn’t get to do a Q&A with Joe Hill. I can understand that writers are busy (or that publicists don’t want to ask too much of them) but one of the upsides for bloggers who participate in virtual book tours is in getting an interaction with some of the writers. And one of the upsides for readers of blogs is to read interviews that are different than the ones found in major magazines or newspapers.
Follow Joe Hill on Twitter @joe_hill and visit his website here
Also follow great blog tours on TLC's website.
November 6th, 2013