Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Reviews: NOS4A2

by Joe Hill
The book's title is essentially a neological homophone for Nosferatu. It is also the license plate of the book's primary villain. Joe Hill dedicated this book to his mother. I guess that makes sense as the balance of the story is concerned with the love and special bond that a good mother has for her children and how she would go through hell to protect them. I don't know what it would be like to wake up one morning and suddenly have a completely different distribution of fat and muscle, different skeletal structure, be shorter, weigh less and have a sexuality which is suddenly flipped. I don't know what it would be like to be almost by definition much weaker than half of the population.

In short I have no idea what it would be like to be a woman. The thing about good writers though, and Joe Hill is obviously among that population, is that they can very easily imagine and communicate such things. Writing from a different perspective or even being able to imagine life from a different perspective is pretty critical to creating good fiction. After all, our human similarities are much greater than our differences, even for something as fundamental to our existence as gender. Anyway, I thought that the heroine of the book and some other female characters were indeed realistic. The tense relationship between the book's primary protagonist and her mother reminded me of some folks I've known. Although some gender experiences are totally beyond the opposite gender's understanding, if you listen, watch, interact and think you can learn quite a bit about how men or women respond and react in general. But all the same I would be interested in knowing what real life women thought of these characters should they decide to read this book. 

Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King. Obviously there is some of his father's voice and skill in what he writes. How could there not be. But he has his own voice and makes that quite clear in NOS4A2. The only things that reminded me of Stephen King were the facts that once I started this book I didn't want to stop and that Hill skillfully mixes the weird and frightening with the mundane. Storytelling is a skill that not every writer has. But Hill has it. Some authors bore you from almost the first page while others have you following them like children following the Pied Piper.
Before I started this book I was reading, or rather slogging through another book by a British author. That book, despite referencing subjects and themes which I enjoy, was a dense rough read. I lost my interest in finishing the story about a third of the way through the book. I stopped reading that book and started NOS4A2. That was a good decision. Actually it was one of the better decisions I've made lately. NOS4A2 is a breakneck ride with one of the more frightening and nastier villains I've seen in a while. I was reminded more of authors like Dan Simmons, Clive Barker, Madeleine L'Engle and Neil Gaiman than Stephen King.

All the same the book is filled with little loving references to both of Hill's parents. One character has his mother's name and even is described as looking like her. A region of Maine is named after a villain in his father's book It. The book's main villain is at one point described as looking like someone from Salem's Lot. For some reason I also thought of the German fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, only here the villain is much much worse. The book starts when the heroine of the story, one Victoria McQueen, often called Vic by most people or lovingly Brat, by her father, is just eight years old. She discovers that when she is riding her bicycle she's able to invoke something she calls the Shorter Way. 

This looks like a dilapidated bridge which her parents have warned her not to cross. But for Victoria this Shorter Way is something that helps her to find things others have thought lost and/or travel tremendous distances in the time it takes to cross a bridge. She doesn't know how she does this only that she can. It's similar to the tesseract concept used in A Wrinkle in Time. For Vic, the shortest way between two points is most definitely not a straight line. As you might imagine Vic doesn't talk about this to other people as she knows no one will believe her. I mean would you?

However, Vic is not the only human or indeed the only entity that can bend time or space to her will. One other, well let's call him a man for now, shall we, person who can do that is Charles Talent Manx. Manx is a remarkably ugly balding old man with a prominent overbite. Driving a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, Manx and his sidekick Bing Partridge entice and/or kidnap children. Manx drives the children to a place called Christmasland. Christmasland is not necessarily in our world. 

Well it is and isn't. What is reality anyway? Do your thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears count as reality? As one character points out when a musician writes a song and you hear it, he just brought some of his reality into our world. And yet that song still exists independently of us all. This book starts to go into some places explored by William Gibson and Phillip Dick. But long story short although Manx tells the children that they will enjoy Christmasland he leaves out a few rather critical details about both their journey and their destination. Bing Partridge is assigned to "deal with" the children's parents, especially their mothers. He is eager to assist. And yes that does imply what you no doubt thought it did. Bing is, as the affable, fastidious and particular Manx constantly points out, a vile, depraved, lustful creature.

One day, deliberately trying to hurt her mother, a teen Vic tries to find evil. And her Shorter Way path leads her to Mr. Manx. She became the first person to escape Mr. Manx, something he takes very personally. But he's nothing if not patient and waits until Vic has something he wants even more than he wants her life.

The adult Vic has friends and lovers who will both try to help her in her quest and help her remember what she's forgotten. I bought a hardback version of this book. It's just over 600 pages. So it is an investment in time. At this time of year when my free time is at a premium a book this size is a little longer than I would usually read. But NOS4A2 is worth the time. Despite its heft I don't think there was ever a point where I put it down. Well maybe I put it down because I had to marvel at how good the story was. I certainly never got bored or irritated. I skipped watching football or movies to read this book. 

There is violence and cruelty in this story but there is also good. I never felt that the author was trying to shock just for the sake of shocking, something that can happen pretty often in the horror genre. If this is made into a movie it will include the sorts of scenes that will have you shouting at the screen and possibly covering your eyes. The creepiness starts from the very first page and only gets better from there. There's not too many writers who can take very old archetypes, put their own original spin on them and leave people wondering why didn't anyone else think of that. Once again, if you are not normally into horror you shouldn't be put off by this book. 

Despite the flights of fancy I thought that things were pretty well grounded in reality. If you are into well made horror or well made fiction, period you should read this book. Hill uses the famous quote, "Die Todten Reiten Schnell", from the poem Lenore, which I guess is a tip of the hat to previous genre authors, something that many genre enthusiasts will immediately recognize, and given that Manx drives a car, something of an inside joke.
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