I’ve read few Stephen King books – Bag of Bones, the Dark Tower, Skeleton Crew, It – before, but never anything from Joe Hill, King’s son. I was aware of Locke & Key as it was coming out, but I had never really gotten around to reading any of it. So, when the Sword & Laser Podcast chose NOS4A2 as its October pick, I figured this was as good a time as any to get started with Hill’s work.
On the one hand, NOS4A2 does have some similarities with King’s work – with the natural conversational tone the book has as it shifts between characters, always retaining a third-person view, but one with a degree of internality so the narration is colored by the personality of the characters, complete with the somewhat conversational tone (with levels of profanity that fit the characters).
The book follows Victoria “Vic” McQueen, starting when she’s a kid in 1986, then when she’s a teen in 1996, and as an adult in 2008. She has an ability to magically teleport by riding through a mental construct of a covered bridged near her home (the Shorter Way), to travel to a thing she’s looking for. She learns more about her ability in 1986 from a librarian, Maggie Leigh (who can divine answers using Scrabble tiles), and who also warns her about a child abductor named Charles Manx, who has been kidnapping children and taking them to “Christmasland” using his 1932 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the license plate “NOS4A2” which also has some magical abilities. In 1996, she somewhat unintentionally seeks out Manx, and ends up taking him down, destroying (partially) his car in the process, with the help of Lou Carmody, a motorcyclist.
In 2008, she’s an adult who is in a relationship with Lou and has a son, Bruce. Vic has faced some significant mental health issues, partly due to her experiences, and partly due to harassing phone calls from kids who were taken to Christmasland swearing revenge. Finally, in 2012, like a vampire, Manx manages to resurrect once his car is restored and decides to restart his kidnappings, starting with Vic’s son, sending her to a final confrontation with Manx.
So, the scope of the story – in time, to continue the King comparisons, does draw some similarities to IT, but Manx is a very different figure than Pennywise. Even if the book wasn’t explicitly titled “NOS4A2” to draw comparisons with vampires, Manx would draw those comparisons anyway, except with a classic luxury car instead of a coffin.
As a villain, Manx conveys a real sense of charming gentility with a strong undercurrent of menace that always feels like it’s on the brink of boiling of the surface. The rest of the point-of-view characters are similarly well realized, especially Vic, Lou, and Bruce. Vic in particular feels like – not a deconstruction of the mama-bear archetype, but more of a re-evaluation of the archetype. That Vic’s actions are justified, but also born out of some real ongoing trauma that she’s still grappling with.
In all, I’m glad this book came up for the Sword & Laser Book Club, and I’m glad I read the book in this spooky season.
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