Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nos4a2 by Joe Hill

Since I reported my completion of Nos4a2 on my GoodReads account, people have been asking me what I thought about. It's natural: Hill is probably the most interesting mainstream up-and-coming horror writer working right now and Nos4a2 has been treated like his breakout novel. I picked up the book in an airport bookstore in Pittsburgh. It was in the recommended reads section and had prominent placement. When was the last time you've seen a horror novel get that much attention?

Nos4a2 is about a vampire named is Charlie Manx. He's a little bit of a rube and a little bit deadly, slightly too comical but also cunningly lethal. He drives a bad ass Rolls Royce Wraith around, picking up little children to take back to his imaginary Christmas kingdom. Once there, he steals their youth and their humanity in order to keep himself young.

If any parent objects, Manx feeds them to his Renfield, an emotionally stunted little misanthrope named the Gasmask Man.

The only person who can oppose him is a damaged young woman named Vic McQueen. The product of a broken home, she has discovered a way to magically travel anywhere she needs to be almost instantly, but the process has done severe damage to her psyche. Now, with the life of a loved one hanging in the balance, she must find the courage to ride across the covered bridge and confront Manx in his nightmarish inscape of Christmasland. 

The more I read Joe Hill's stuff, the more I'm starting to see patterns and repeat motifs emerge. Hill writes brilliantly wounded young adults. Hill doesn't do happy romances. Hill's work straddles a line between fantasy and horror. Hill is already creating his own mythos, where everyday objects bestowing incredible powers on people at horrible cost. Characters strive for either redemption or validation.

The damaged character thing is probably my favorite aspect of his work. Horror fiction has its fair share of wounded heroes but most of them are inelegantly handled. Dark pasts are window dressing for stern figures to brood over or psychos to have a justification. Hill's characters actually feel like damaged human beings. They're barely keeping it together, mired with regret, prone to wishful thinking, and possessed of fearsome self-destructive anger.

One of the things that drew me to horror fiction over, say, science fiction or fantasy is that horror is an examination of human frailty. Both sci-fi and fantasy are full of powerful heroes and humans elevated to godhood. Horror characters don't triumph, they don't win and they're mostly lucky to get through in one piece.

I like that. I play video games to feel powerful. I watch horror movies to feel vulnerable. You can't make an invincible character feel vulnerable. Joe Hill does human weakness very well. I can imagine some people might think he goes too far and his characters are too far gone, but I sympathize with them. 

As much as I liked the characterization of this book, I think I preferred Horns more.

Part of the reason I like the horror genre over the science fiction or fantasy genre is I have an admittedly limited imagination. When I real a sci-fi/fantasy novel, I have to have the world explained to me. Not only do I have to become emotionally invested in the characters and their journey, now I have to spend pages on descriptions of stuff I don't actually care about.

Sorry, y'all. New worlds belong in visual media. So does Christmasland.

Hill does have the advantage of everyone being at least passingly familiar with Christmas tradition, and it's not hard to invert Christmas stuff and make it creepy ("Happy children with knives! Christmas ornaments made from severed heads!") but it felt more like a dangerous fantasy setting than a horror story. This is more a preference than a complaint and I'm sure a lot of people will love that aspect of Nos4a2 but it only kinda-sorta worked for me. I liked the eerie lonely echo of the House of Sleep more. It didn't help that the book downshifted toward the end. The kid gets kidnapped slightly more than halfway through the book and the ensuing chase, which should have been a breathless and tense rush, turns into two separate side quests and a meander.

I did like fact that magic came at tremendous cost. The Wraith provides Charlie Manx with eternal life and access to a tiny pocket dimension, but it also means that he is stuck in perpetual, petulant childhood. Vic McQueen can travel anywhere that she needs to, but the price has been a lifetime of self-destructive behavior and struggles to keep her sanity. I have always liked the idea that there would be a hard cost to disrupting the fabric of reality. It's done well in the book. If I had Vic McQueen's bike, I'd probably leave that covered bridge alone.  

Nos4a2 feels like a later effort from a punk rock band. Some of the appealing raw energy is gone, but the voice is more solid and confident. He's figured out what he does well and he mostly sticks to it. I liked the monster Charlie Manx quite a bit, I felt for Vic McQueen, and I love the way their stories played out. The book did feel a little overlong at parts and the second half could have easily been condensed, but it's a fine story all the same. I'm really digging Hill's work. I can't wait for his next one.

Art by gabrielrodriguez and cpwilsoniii