Much of modern horror fiction suffers from the weight of tradition. Therefore a lot of is it post-modern, or knowingly clever, or reverential, which is fine if you want a werewolf with wit or a glow-in-the-daylight vampire. Ghost stories become police procedurals and monsters become gateways into a deranged psyche.
Back in the 1980s, horror fiction tended to be more innocent, if you will. It was about the bogeyman under the bed or the rats in the cellar or the vengeful spirit in the loft. The biggest name in horror was, of course, Stephen King and he wrote some whoppers. It, The Stand and The Shining stand out. And, of course, Christine; the story of a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury. Context is everything. So, what to make of Joe Hill’s 686 page NOS4R2; a huge hardback with a glaring vintage car on the cover which looks positively evil. I had my doubts. I hoped it wasn’t just a rehash of something familiar. Only this time a vampire car? I was to be delightfully surprised.
Our story begins, after the prologue, in 1986 (a couple of years after Christine was published). Meet Vic McQueen. She’s our teenage heroine and she can ride her bike over an imaginary bridge to find lost things. One day, she finds herself in Christmasland, the creation of the bogeyman of this story; one Charlie Manx. Manx is linked to, and fuelled by, the titular car: a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith. Along with his child-like but deranged henchman, Bing Partridge, AKA The Gasmask Man, he kidnaps children and whisks them off to the place where it’s Christmas every day and you always get to play. Vic not only survives the encounter, but escapes into the arms of geek loser Lou. Meanwhile, Manx ends up in a prison hospital, diagnosed with a rare aging disorder. This section feels like proper story-telling, motivating the reader to invest in Vic and her life by focusing on the mundane as well as the grand.
We move to more recent times and Vic and Lou have a child. She is a children’s author and not exactly on best terms with Lou, or the world. Manx has died, but Vic still receives phone calls from the children trapped in Christmasland. Or is she simply insane and the victim of a more traditional child kidnap? Struggling to get by with her kid Wayne – her nightmares and realities clash as Manx comes back from the dead and takes Wayne from her. The police and FBI become involved, clearly doubting her story, but she is determined to find her way back to Christmasland. She wants to rescue her son, as well as her broken relationships along the way.
There are difficult choices to be found in this story, from a reader’s perspective. You see, the undercurrent is about child abuse. Manx genuinely believes he is saving the kids from abusive adults. We visit the Graveyard of What Might Be with Manx, which houses graves of the children he saves/kidnaps after they have died at the hands of their carers. We know he’s ‘evil’, but he doesn’t. And if he is saving children from abuse, is he not the good guy?
My main issue with the narrative, however, is with a slow middle section when the events of the kidnapping of Wayne are taken from a multitude of perspectives. These chapters don’t cohere with the rest of the story, as it is mostly from Vic’s perspective. I think this section is probably there to ratchet up the tension, but for me, it slows the story unnecessarily. What is cool though, based on my preconceived concerns, is that the car is not the main feature. Of course it is important in the way it connects with Manx and also resonates with Vic’s bikes (she moves onto a Triumph motorbike as an adult), but it is not the focus of the tale.
Hill presents some interesting characterisation, if nothing remarkable or original. Vic suffers from her choices. Wayne finds it hard to trust his mother. Lou is a proper geek (references to Firefly for example – but is that just a play to the audience?). Manx is quite an old-fashioned man-monster in appearance, but his back-story and motivations could have been fleshed out more. Bing, as the Gasmask Man, is genuinely creepy. Maggie, a librarian, is a nicely drawn character with not a cliché in sight. There are powerfully descriptive passages of the horror and nightmare imaginings. The nature of the supernatural events is never really described in detail, other than it is related to the mind, but it is a valid attempt to create a monster mythology that doesn’t rely on antecedents. I would have liked the plot to spend a little more time in Christmasland, however. The ending seemed a tad rushed, considering the time taken to get there.
The story of Vic and her family has power because it has a toll. People pay a price and not in a post-modern horror way, where the first person to have sex is the first person to die. While this is a fantasy, it is grounded in realistic decisions made by realistic people based on their tough choices.
I read a lovely hardback edition which is scattered with illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez (who worked with Hill on his comic series Locke and Key). Sadly, however, they turn up less and less as the story builds towards its conclusion.
‘Old-school and proud’ is how I’d imaging Joe Hill describing NOS4R2. Old fashioned horror. It even has creepy rhyming bad guys and malevolent children (albeit not quite themselves). Which goes some way to show that there’s nothing outstandingly different here to a lot of horror fiction from the 1980s, but it is a refreshing change to most modern horror. With its depth of storytelling, NOS4R2 is more than just throwaway horror entertainment, but entertaining it is.