William Morrow, 2013, 686 pages
Victoria McQueen has an uncanny knack for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. When she rides her bicycle over the rickety old covered bridge in the woods near her house, she always emerges in the places she needs to be. Vic doesn't tell anyone about her unusual ability, because she knows no one will believe her. She has trouble understanding it herself.
Charles Talent Manx has a gift of his own. He likes to take children for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the vanity plate NOS4A2. In the Wraith, he and his innocent guests can slip out of the everyday world and onto hidden roads that lead to an astonishing playground of amusements he calls Christmasland. Mile by mile, the journey across the highway of Charlie's twisted imagination transforms his precious passengers, leaving them as terrifying and unstoppable as their benefactor.
And then comes the day when Vic goes looking for trouble...and finds her way, inevitably, to Charlie.
That was a lifetime ago. Now, the only kid ever to escape Charlie's unmitigated evil is all grown up and desperate to forget.
But Charlie Manx hasn't stopped thinking about the exceptional Victoria McQueen. On the road again, he won't slow down until he's taken his revenge. He's after something very special - something Vic can never replace.
As a life-and-death battle of wills builds her magic pitted against his - Vic McQueen prepares to destroy Charlie once and for all...or die trying....
Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. I've been a Constant Reader since high school.
Joseph Hillstrom King, writing as "Joe Hill," is Stephen King's son. He's become a big name horror author in his own right, but I was reluctant to test whether King Jr. was just imitating his old man or had writing chops of his own. Who wants to read King lite when there are still Stephen King novels I haven't read?
Dude even looks strikingly like his old man:
And the cover and premise of this book reminded me of one of his dad's novels:
But after finishing NOS4A2, I am sold; sure, Joe Hill undoubtedly had a huge advantage in being Stephen King's son, but he can write. Unquestionably, he has been heavily influenced by his father. The plot, the tropes, the flawed, messed up characters who do messed up things, and the icky weirdness surrounding psychic abilities make it clear that Joe has read all his father's works and taken them as his template for how to write fiction. But who can blame him? If your father is one of the most successful authors in the world, why wouldn't you take him as an example of how it should be done?
So, if you're a King fan, I think you will like this book, but it's good enough to possibly turn you into a Joe Hill fan as well. Certainly, I'm going to read some more by junior.
The villain of the book is Charles Talent (cute) Manx, who is a psychic vampire. Despite his self-aware wink at his true nature with the NOS4A2 vanity plate on his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, what makes Manx interesting, the thing that the heroine, Victoria McQueen realizes in the end, is that like most villains, Manx does not see himself as a villain. Despite being the creepiest child-abducting monster this side of Pennywise, Charles Manx genuinely believe he's doing the children he steals a favor, by taking them away from abusive homes (his definition of "abuse" is of course very broad, since he's a misogynistic troglodyte who thinks pretty much all women are whores and sluts who will pimp out their own children) and bringing them to Christmasland, his own private psychic virtual world in which every day is Christmas, candy and toy shops are open all day and all night, the world is an amusement park, and the children brought there slowly turn into amoral little psychopaths like Charles Manx.
Victoria "Vic" McQueen first encounters Charles Manx as a child. She has a psychic power similar to his - when she rides her bicycle across the Shorter Way Bridge, a rickety, decrepit old bridge near her home town, she can go anywhere. She has a talent for finding lost things, and so on her bike she is able to ride her way to missing jewelry, missing pets, or wherever else she wants to go, and then back home again. She uses this to escape from her parents, who are both kind of screwed up and spend much of her childhood yelling at each other. Despite being extremely imperfect specimens of parenthood, they do love their daughter, though it takes years and an encounter with a monster for Vic to accept this and forgive them.
As a teenager, she rides her way into the path of Charles Manx, and while she escapes, the encounter messes her up for life. Years later, with a boyfriend who's a sweet, morbidly obese uber-nerd and a son she hasn't seen much of because of all the time she's spent in mental institutions and rehab, she has somehow become a successful children's book author, but she's still a hot mess and no better a partner or mother than her own mother was. And then Charles Manx comes for her son.
Joe Hill works out the "mechanics" of Vic and Manx's powers (and those of a few others who are mentioned), but in the same manner as King, never rigorously defines them, leaving things mysterious and vague at the edges. Their powers might as well be magic, though they clearly affect the real world, in ways that even non-psychics can perceive.
Vic's boyfriend and the father of her child, Lou Carmody, walks the thin line between parody and mockery. You can tell Joe Hill is poking affectionate fun at the sort of 300-pound convention-going, Stormtrooper costume wearing sweaty nerd for which Lou is an archetype (he names his son "Bruce Wayne Carmody"!), and it never really feels mean, even if Lou being "rewarded" with the hot girl he rescued one afternoon as a young man reads like an unlikely wish-fulfillment fantasy. But by the climax, both Lou and Vic get to be the heroes that Lou always wanted to be and that Vic always needed to be.
This is a horror story, but it's also an adventure story, and it's also an epic about a damaged girl who grew up to be a damaged woman, who rides out to do battle with the Devil for the soul of her child. 8/10.
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