Book Review: NOS4A2, Joe Hill (2013)

December 30th, 2013 2:18 pm by Kelly Garbato

Dude!

five out of five stars

“High-pitched whine.” (page 663)

If I had to choose just one line in NOS4A2 to sum up my feelings, “High-pitched whine.” would be it. Never mind that it’s in reference to a motorcycle. (Or an explosion; it’s not entirely clear.) All the better, actually, seeing as some of the noises I made while reading this book can hardly be called human.

Equal parts horror and fantasy, with a dash o’ science fiction and coming of age thrown in for good measure, NOS4A2 had me hooked from the get-go. Without divulging too much of the plot, let’s just say that NOS4A2 imagines a world in which certain people, with the help of special objects, are able to cut holes in the fabric of reality and travel in between worlds both real and imagined. With a little help from her bottomless bag of Scrabble tiles, Maggie is able to read the future, while Vic’s Raleigh Tuff Burner bike can conjure up a bridge that will take her wherever she needs to go. But the knife cuts both ways; the more the girls use their respective talismans, the greater the toll it takes. Maggie develops a crippling stutter (and, in time, resorts to self-mutilation and drug abuse), while Vic’s metaphorical bridge begins to crumble – and with it goes her sanity.

But not everyone possessed of these powers use them for good; and sometimes, the ability is itself inherently evil. Take, for example, 116-year-old Charlie Manx, a psychic vampire whose 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith is powered by the souls of children (the car’s vanity plates read “NOS4A2”; go ahead, sound it out!). Several times a year, Manx and his accomplice kidnap a young child and ferry her away to Christmasland, an imaginary world made real by Manx and his ride. Here they’re fated to spend eternity, cold, unfeeling husks of the happy children they once were. One day in 1996, 17-year-old Vic runs away from home after an especially vicious fight with her mother. She dusts off her trusty Raleigh and goes looking for trouble – and she runs straight into Charlie Manx.

If, like my husband, you feel like I’ve already spoiled the story for you, fear not: there’s another sixteen years that I didn’t even touch! It’s a long and sprawling tale that doesn’t end with Manx’s arrest. Or death.

A true page-turner, I often found NOS4A2 difficult to put down. Some nights I stayed up reading until my eyes were so tired I thought they might start bleeding (Vic!). Halfway through I had to fight the urge to throw the book across the room and walk away – I was so invested in the characters (Lou! Maggie! Vic! Hooper!) that I was afraid of seeing them killed off. When I was down to just 60 pages – one more reading session – I picked the book up with some reluctance, because I didn’t want to see it end. And when it did, I kept reading, right through “A Note on the Type.” (Spoiler alert: it’s really more of an afterward. Skip it at your own peril!)

Hill is a hell of a writer; evocative, lyrical, and a master of suspense. He also drops in plenty of geeky good bits (“I am a leaf on the wind”) and motorcycle enthusiasts will love how central bikes are to the plot. As an added bonus, Vic is roughly the same age as me, so I could couch many of her milestones in my own childhood and adolescence.

I hesitate to compare Hill to his (in)famous father – especially since he doesn’t seem the type to name drop – but, in my defense, I grew up on Stephen King, so he’s kind of the benchmark I use to judge horror novels, supernatural or otherwise. NOS4A2 is reminiscent of some of my favorite Stephen King: the story unfolds at a slow, almost leisurely pace, but nothing is wasted; even the early pages are filled with a sense of suspense and wonder. Both men seem to delight in killing dogs, and create villains who are misogynists, homophobes, etc., so that the audience may take even greater pleasure in their defeat. (Horror with a liberal bent, yay!) Of course, this means that slurs are not an uncommon occurrence, so trigger warning for that as well as rape (which mostly takes place off-screen, at least).

This is the first Joe Hill novel I’ve read, but it won’t be my last. I suspect that I’ll soon be spending most of my Christmas money buying up the rest of his oeuvre.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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