I’m a scaredy-cat. Case in point: when I was a child (never mind how old), I went with my parents to the movies. Before the main attraction, there was a trailer for a film that traumatized me so much that I still freak out at the thought of it. And I’m a grown man now. So suffice to say that I don’t do scary movies.
And yet. Remove the visual component—reduce the horror to words alone—and I’m perfectly fine with it. Case again in point: the works of Joe Hill. I picked up his first book, Heart-Shaped Box, knowing that he came recommended by Neil Gaiman (and I will generally check out anything that Neil recommends), and that was a fun, if not necessarily groundbreaking, piece of ghostwork. This was followed by 20th Century Ghosts, a splendid, multifaceted short story collection (actually published by a small UK press before Box had been) that recalled equal parts Roald Dahl and Stephen King. (Oh yes, there is that…Hill’s full name is Joseph Hillstrom King. Yes, as in the son of.)
And then came Horns. Glorious, magnificent Horns, in which Ig Perrish grows a pair of horns one morning and then sets in motion a plan to take revenge for the death of his girlfriend. It was my favorite book of 2010: an expansive, deeply moving work of horror/fantasy that rocketed to the top of the list of books that I recommended when I still worked at the bookstore, even to people who didn’t like that kind of thing. (“How did you know I’d love that book?” a customer once asked. “Simple,” I replied. “I only recommend good books.”) Which brings me to Hill’s newest book: the doorstop-sized, bright-white-jacketed N0S4A2.
It is not Horns. But how could it be? It’s its own beast, even as it feels a little like a throwback. An evil, semi-sentient car (the title is its license plate), a young woman with a self-destructive but necessary supernatural power, the overpowering strength of family bonds: all of these elements and more make the book feel at time like an homage to some of King’s work (which is in no way a negative comment), as does its prodigious length (just short of 700 pages, which makes it Hill’s longest work yet). (Not to mention a direct, if brief reference to IT.)
I realize that this is all background, and you’re probably saying to yourself, “but what is it ABOUT?” Well, then: N0S4A2 pits two powerful beings against each other. One, the ageless Charles Talent Manx, only wants to help children by taking them to Christmasland, a strange holiday-themed amusement park that exists in another dimension. The other, Victoria McQueen, is the only person to ever escape from his clutches. And now, years after the fact, Manx wants his revenge.
What is intriguing about N0S4A2 is how it, in a sense, combines the best elements of Hill’s two previous novels. It’s creepy, like Heart-Shaped Box, and it’s also deeply moving, like Horns. Besides which: it’s just plain well-written. Hill is especially gifted at creating memorable characters almost instantly—aside from the main cast, I particularly remember the unfortunate hospital security guard Hicks, who’s only present for ten pages.
In short: Joe Hill continues his streak. The man’s a gift.