Joe Hill’s latest novel might be his most epic horror story yet (Locke & Key excluded) – it’s crammed full with a murderous automobile, a punk-rock librarian, a haunting and monstrous villains, and flawed heroes that are utterly human and sympathetic. It’s both a coming of age story/loss of innocence story, and a tale of failed parents searching for redemption. I finished listening to it a few weeks back, and it’s 20 pretty incredible hours of storytelling, marred by one thread’s disappointing conclusion.
Charlie Manx abducts children in his Rolls-Royce Wraith and whisks them away to the fantasy world of Christmasland. Christmasland is like a twisted mix of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island and Narnia under the reign of the White Witch. In Christmasland, it’s always Christmas and never anything else, and children are encouraged to ditch all their inhibitions.
We follow Vic “the Brat” McQueen, a kid from a broken family who rides a bicycle that helps her find loss things. As a teenager, she faced down Charlie Manx and managed to escape with her life. Now, years later, Manx is back with a vendetta and comes for Vic’s son.
I’m always floored by how endearing Hill’s characters are – he makes them feel so authentic that we can’t help rooting for them. As we track Vic from her childhood to her own, broken motherhood, we witness her fall from grace. Since we’re riding shotgun with her, we never stop loving her, even when everyone else in the story thinks she’s gone mad. And it’s impossible not to love some of the characters she encounters – Lou Carmody, an overweight geek who is reminiscent of LOST‘s Hurley; Tabitha Hunter, a cop who like Dana Scully thinks every puzzle can be solved with logic; and Maggie Lee, the aforementioned punk rock librarian with a special bag of Scrabble Tiles. We always know who we’re rooting for Hill’s books, and who we’re rooting against. Manx is a monster, and his henchman Bing Partridge is maybe even more despicable.
Maybe it’s because Hill is so good at his job, that I’m somewhat disappointed in how NOS4A2 ended. Not the very end, mind you – the final scene, as well as the, uh, post-credits scene, I found hopeful and haunting. But the fate of a central character felt like a slap in the face, and not in a good way. It might not frustrate others the way it frustrated me, but it felt like an easy way out, and left a bad taste in my mouth. Without getting overly spoilerly, I wish Hill had made a different choice, because it’s not very satisfying considering the story that’s come before it.
Kate Mulgrew’s reading is absolutely superb. She mines every bit of Hill’s prose to pour in as much emotion as is humanly possibly. Her reading is raw and powerful, and floored me. I mentioned last year how awesome she was in the incredible Shadow Show anthology, and I’m so happy she read this one – I hope she reads many more audiobooks in the future.
In short, NOS4A2 is a sprawling book filled with horror and magic, good and evil, and a winter wonderland that can be as devastating and deceptive as childhood. I don’t think it’s Hill’s best – that one thread really felt cheap to me, but there is a lot to like, and it’s well worth the ride.