In Joe Hill’s new novel, NOS4A2, we’re introduced to a girl nicknamed “The Brat,” and, as heroines go, Vic McQueen has shot to the top of my list, in large part because she’s a complete mess. Looking to escape the painfully slow degradation of her parent’s marriage, Vic takes to her bike and rides as hard and fast as she can away from her father’s anger and her mother’s misery. She wants to fix things, and discovers a way to manifest a crumbling covered bridge that takes her to other places to find lost items. Her trips take a toll on her physically, but she keeps taking them, feeling each item she brings back helps those she cares about. Eventually she gets too old to accept the magic of what she’s capable of, and keeps trying to put her talent away.
When she takes one more pass across the bridge to escape the reality of her family finally shattering, she stumbles upon Charles Talent Manx, an elegant, venomous man who kidnaps children. With the aide of Bing Partridge, a mentally childlike man who dispatches the parents of those children, Manx has cruised the US in his 1937 Rolls Royce Wraith, bringing the children to stay with him forever in Christmasland. Vic manages to escape, and in doing so leads Manx to be captured. Vic uses the trauma of the events to brush over the magical way she came across Manx, and as he ended up in a coma during his capture she looks to finally put the strange, horrible events behind her.
But, as Hill covered so well in Heart Shaped Box, the past is never really gone. Victoria has a child of her own, and struggles with a screaming sense she shouldn’t be a mother and a fierce love for her son. She wants not to fail, and so inevitably stumbles constantly as a parent, as one does when you focus so intently on trying not to screw up. The fact she has more baggage than she can possibly carry doesn’t help, nor do the strange calls by the children of Christmasland who taunt her and threaten her son. Then Manx escapes his prison hospital, and comes looking for Vic. By the way, he escapes after being declared dead, autopsied, and sent to the morgue.
All of this is built out of the creepiest of parts, with the kind of electrifying tension that makes turning the pages so damn easy. But this is only the build up, the prelude and introduction that sets the scene and puts the pieces in place. Because once Vic’s son Wayne is taken by Manx, Vic sets out after him. She is a wreck emotionally, right on the edge of madness, and beat to hell by her encounter with Manx and Bing, but she’s also fiercely determined. True, she’s going after her son, but she’s also going after Manx for herself. Hill has developed a fantastic character type across much of his work; men and women who lurch forward into the horror rather than recoiling. Whether it’s the Locke kids, Wayne Coyne, or Ig Perrish in Horns, his characters aren’t frightened and cowering when they encounter evil. Yes they’re scared and disturbed, but they accept their lot and put their shoulder right into the conflict. They might prefer to cower, but there are things that need doing, and no one else to do them. If you haven’t read Hill yet (brief aside as I ask what the hell’s wrong with you?), think of Vic McQueen as an incarnation of Ripley in Aliens. She knows the evil’s out there, sees those around her don’t understand how deep in shit they now find themselves, so she steps up to take care of things herself.
Also wonderful is how much fun it’s clear Joe had building this thing. Throughout there are peppered details, allusions, sly references and entendres galore. This is a book by a man who loves words and the small details. An example is when Lou, the father of Vic’s son, laments the inane arguments on comic book message boards like what color the Hulk should be next as the only appropriate colors are green or gray. Another is Maggie Leigh’s paperweight; a pistol marked “Property of A. Chekov.” One more is a location on a map that’s a hat tip to his dad. That last one’s kind of sweet in a deeply twisted way. Hill revels in the details, and it gives the fantastic world he crafts tangible edges. I don’t doubt he, like all writers, has evenings where he sweats what to write next. I do get the distinct impression these moments are often followed by a decision to just say “fuck it” and jump forward with both feet, and the book’s so much the better as a result.
There definitely seems to be something magical about the number three. After all, A Fistful of Dollars was Sergio Leone’s third film, while Born to Run was Springsteen’s third album. There may be a bit of overstatement in saying Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 is exactly on the same level, but man is it up there.