Friday, March 29, 2019

Book Review - Joe Hill's N0S4A2

N0S4A2 by Joe Hill
Published by: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: October 15th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 720 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

When Victoria McQueen was eight she crossed a bridge between Lost and Found. Her family had just returned home to Haverhill, Massachusetts from their summer vacation and her parents were fighting. Again. Her mother couldn't fight her bracelet with the butterfly on it and worried she had left it back at the Lake. Vic, unable to take the fighting, jumps on her bike, a Raleigh Tuff Burner, and takes to the trails behind her house. In a fit of pique she decides to go to the Shorter Way Bridge. She's been forbidden to go near the derelict and condemned structure but today she sees the light on the other side and just rides past the chain blocking the entrance. She expected to come out on the other side of the river, instead she comes out in an alley behind Terry's Primo Subs in New Hampshire. This is the restaurant where they always stop on the way home from the Lake. And there, behind the counter, they have her mother's bracelet. By this point Vic is feeling sick. She barely makes it home across the bridge and takes to her bed. When she awakes she has no memory of this journey. She will repeat this trip many times over the years finding that which was lost on the other side of the Shorter Way Bridge only to forget. On one of her journeys she meets Maggie. Maggie has been waiting for Vic because she also has powers. They are both able to poke a hole in reality, but not without a price.

Though there's a bigger danger out there on the inscapes than the price they pay for admission. There's the Wraith. Maggie begs now thirteen year old Victoria to promise to never go looking for the old man and the car. Charles Talent Manx "saves" kids by spiriting them off to "Christmasland" in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the vanity plates reading NOS4A2, a private joke. At the age of seventeen Vic can now barely ride her Tuff Burner and is spoiling for a fight and has spent years hearing about kids going missing, kids she is sure Manx has taken. She goes looking for trouble and ends up just where Maggie never wanted her to go, the Sleigh House. Manx's home in this realm is in the mountains of Colorado surrounded by pine trees with Christmas ornaments hanging from every branch. She barely escapes with her life, being saved by a young boy on a motorcycle. Lou is her hero and Manx goes off to prison to rot. Lou and Vic make a life together. They have a son, Wayne, and Vic becomes a rather successful children's book author with her Search Engine series. But the children of Christmasland won't let her get away with what she did to Manx. They reach out to her and listen as her sanity falters. As she's trying to repair the years of damage she has wrought on those she loves Manx escapes and takes Wayne for a ride in the Wraith. Vic's life is in free fall and she knows that the time has come to end Manx and Christmasland once and for all.

I picked up this book over the holidays because I think horror kind of lends itself to that time of year and with a place called Christmasland how could it not put me in the right frame of mind for Christmas and New Year's? Here's the thing though, this book is more a "Christmas in July" book taking pains to contrast the snowy environs of Christmasland with the sweltering heat of a summer day. Therefore it felt off reading it around Christmas. This should be read when the air conditioning is on high and the glare of the sun is so bright you can't bear to look at the heat haze over the pavement. When you decide to watch Fargo because watching that movie during the winter just depresses you but in the summer it's the perfect meteorological pick-me-up. The extra irony in this is that if there's one author I view as the go-to author for behemoth beach reads it's Joe Hill's father, Stephen King. Of all the Stephen King books I've devoured over the summer months, from The Shining to Under the Dome, I can think of only one of his books I've read during the winter months, and that's Misery. Therefore it seems right to me that N0S4A2 should be a summer read. Of course a little belatedly. Plus, it ties into the whole horrific concept of "Christmas in July." Christmas should only be seen as soon as Thanksgiving is done and dusted. Also, who really would want every night to be Christmas Eve and every day to be Christmas Day? Only a really warped mind... the mind of Manx.

Like how his father writes, Joe Hill has written a behemoth book here, coming in at over seven hundred pages! And at least in the case of this story that is several hundred pages too long. This book is just drawn out when making it shorter would have given it a bit more punch. Again, looking to his father, the new adaptation of It was only a little over two hours and yet it handily covered all the salient points of a book that's over a thousand pages long. And there we have a far bigger cast. In fact all of Stephen King's really big books deal with large casts of characters, so it makes sense that their stories would need to be longer. But here? Here we have two main characters and three important secondary characters, and a handful of tertiary characters. That is not enough characters to warrant this length! In fact I'm kind of scratching my head as to how exactly AMC is going to stretch this book out for ten episodes when it airs later this year... wait, never mind, scratch that. They made almost nothing happen for hours and hours on The Terror, they'll find some way to make it last ten hours, even if one hour is just a young Vic riding around on her bike... But this does show to me the need for editors to be like, "Hey Joe, you know sometimes less is better?" I'd rather have a tight story that delivers than a rambling story that has a few key things I kind of liked. This is again when I need to remind myself to read Joe's shorter fiction, because I have a feeling he'd rock the short story. His books usually have just enough plot to be a short story once edited down.

One thing I was rather worried about when reading the description of N0S4A2 was that this is a book about a man who abducts children. My concern wasn't the abduction but the possible molestation angle. If there's one thing I can't read about it's that. I can't handle it. So therefore I'm here to tell you with a slight spoiler that if you were worried about kiddie fiddling, there is none of that here. Manx and his associates never molest the children. Manx in fact views that by spiriting the children off to Christmasland that he's saving the children from horrid parents and giving them a dream life. A life he gave to his own children in fact. But that doesn't mean this book isn't brutal because there's Bing. Bing, aptly named after the singer, is a lover of Christmas and a vicious human being who longs to be rewarded by getting to go to Christmasland and live there forever. Bing is the Renfield to Manx's Dracula and Bing is down for the creepy shit. His home, which he calls the House of Sleep, is where he killed his parents and where he takes all the parents of those kids Manx spirits away. Because you can't have the parents lurking about asking questions and causing problems! No, you need them killed, raped, dismembered, anything gross or disgusting or horrific that happens in this book happens at the hands of Bing. One wonders if his namesake would approve... So while I was very happy the book wasn't brutal in one direction, it's still a brutal book, just more of the kind we're used to. That's not to mean it's palatable in the least, just not as horrific.

Yet Bing isn't the most problematic character, that would fall to our protagonist Vic. She's an odd character because she's almost living her life on autopilot. Whatever happens happens and she doesn't really do anything proactive. Something happens and she reacts, but she almost seems absent from her own story. I think it's because besides having severe psychological issues she has major self-esteem issues as well and she's always denigrating herself. So much so that despite being constantly shown as a serious bad ass she looks to the men in her life as saviors. Her husband Lou and even her father are given these big, grand, heroic moments to make their sacrifices and Vic is counting on and needing them. She constantly calls Lou the real hero! I just don't get it. Or maybe I do... this book is written by a man and men like to rescue the damsel in distress so by making the damsel really damaged the men can come in and rescue her. And doesn't that just piss me off. This story should be about Vic and her triumphant defeat of Charlie Manx, but even there she is almost subsumed within him. He is all powerful and she, she's just a brat. Even that nickname given to Vic at the beginning of the book should have been a hint. It's a way to classify and limit women in what role they can play in their own story. Victoria McQueen, a casualty because of men.

One part of the book I really connected with though was Vic going across the bridge for the first time to find her mother's bracelet. This just resonated with me because of an incident in my own life. When I was in sixth grade, so three years older than Vic when she discovered her powers, we were to bring in an old school picture of our parents to put up on display. We had no pictures of my dad from when he was in school, but my mom had many. She went to school in a one room schoolhouse and when she graduated was the only one in her grade and was the last kid in the state of Wisconsin to graduate from a one room school. She had a picture of all the kids in the room and on the back they had all signed it. Why she would ever have entrusted this artifact to me or my teacher is beyond reckoning, yet she did. I think you can guess where this is going... The picture was lost. It was just gone. I remember my mom unleashing fury like I've never known and my teachers scouring every inch of my classroom, just tearing it apart to find it. That gut punch of the picture being gone was just like the scene where Vic's mom realizes her bracelet is gone and I know exactly the feeling that pushed Vic out into those woods to find that bracelet no matter how she could. To bend time and distance to just stop the arguing. Oh, if only I had had a bike that could cut reality like a knife, of all the miseries I suffered when I was younger, this would be an easy fix. Just go to the picture and bring it home. I probably wouldn't get credit for it though...


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