I realized two things when I was only a few paragraphs into NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: this book is going to make its way onto a number of 2013's "Best Of" lists, and it absolutely should not be read before bedtime. You will either keep reading it all night, or it will disturb your sleep more often than a newborn, and much more diabolically. Trust me: I’ve been reading thriller and horror fiction since I was nine years old, and after more than a half-century, I should be jaded. But just when I think I’m immune to getting my hackles yanked and lifted by the printed page, a book of the quality of NOS4A2 is written and published, and I am reminded that I am only human, after all, even if the characters you encounter in its pages aren’t quite so.
"From the first paragraph to the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book, NOS4A2 has the potential to blow the roof off of the (commercially) moribund state of horror fiction all by itself, in the same way that a book about a certain pyrotechnic teenager did a few decades ago."
Let’s get two pieces of business out of the way first. Number One: That beautiful cover --- a license plate with the title spelled across it and the entrails of squashed bugs on it --- makes one initially think of a certain haunted car well known in horror literature and film. It’s okay to admit it; it’s a natural reaction. That isn’t what the book is about. Oh, there’s a car here, and it plays an important if very diabolical role in the story, but it’s not what you thought about, if only for a brief moment. Which brings us to Number Two: If you want a prior literary reference for NOS4A2, consider SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury. The first chapter or so --- where we are introduced to an eight-year-old girl named Vic, who begins a series of long and forbidden bike rides to a place that isn’t quite right --- put me in the mind of that book practically from the jump. Something wicked this way comes? Oh, you have no idea, at least until you read NOS4A2.
The structure of the novel is interesting, clever and effective. It doesn’t have chapters (though it does here and there) so much as sections; you’re going to want to keep reading once you start it, and this structure is the grease that will keep you sliding in free fall down the pole that constitutes the story, right down into the mouths of the rabid dogs that wait for you at the bottom. The narrative also jumps around in time a bit, with each section dealing with a particular period of days, months, or even years. The primary viewpoint of NOS4A2 is Vic’s, though it’s certainly not the only one. It is Vic, however, who we come to love in spite of herself. She is a somewhat troubled woman whose childhood and difficult adolescence blossoms into a full-blown adult psychosis, a girl with a dragon tattoo and several other ones, yes ma’am. A good deal of this is due to Vic’s inadequate parents, but the major boulder in the path of Vic’s development is an individual/creature monster named Charles Talent Manx, he of the 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with the vanity plates that spell out, well, y’know.
It’s the classic car versus Vic’s birthday bike when the two first meet, and Manx winds up holding the manure-filled end of the stick to his great surprise when all is said and done, at least the first time. Manx, however, is a tough man to keep down, and he has dozens of children waiting at a place called Christmasland, which is a world entirely of his creation. It’s just enough motivation --- coupled, of course, with revenge --- to bring back Manx again and again, as Vic graduates from bicycle to motorcycle with a stop at a somewhat different motherhood along the way.
The intermittent illustrations throughout the book, lovingly rendered by Gabriel Rodriguez (Hill’s partner-in-crime on the continuing graphic series Lock & Key),do exactly what they are supposed to do, which is supply a wonderful bit of lagniappe here and there to the wide-eyed magic that Hill’s prose works. And the ending? There’s something interesting about that. Hill seemingly ends the book with a cataclysmic climax about halfway through. Of course, you know that’s not the end --- there are 350 or so pages to go --- but it does make you wonder what Hill is going to do for the real finish, let alone an encore. I won’t tell you, of course, but you will not be disappointed
I made a list of things that will never be the same for me after reading NOS4A2. It is too long to reproduce here, but it includes gas station convenience stores, Christmas dinner, children sleeping in a car, and covered bridges. Thank you, Mr. Hill. One cannot blame him, though. He doesn’t just tell a great, riveting and unforgettable story here. His imagery shines and sparkles even as he takes the ordinary, turns it a certain way, and makes it...something else. From the first paragraph to the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book, NOS4A2 has the potential to blow the roof off of the (commercially) moribund state of horror fiction all by itself, in the same way that a book about a certain pyrotechnic teenager did a few decades ago.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 3, 2013