For years, I had a short story gestating in my head about a ghost who haunts movie theaters, bearing witness to decades of cinema history. Imagine my chagrin when, in 2008, blazing my way through Joe Hill’s compulsively readable anthology 20th Century Ghosts, I came across a story that read like it was plucked out of my skull, concerning a moviegoer who died during The Wizard of Oz and just kept on watching movies. I have no illusions that my version—throttled in the womb though it was—would have matched or even approached the quality of Hill’s execution. But it wasn’t until my reading of his new novel, NOS4A2, that I gleaned some idea of how he managed to map out in such uncanny detail my mental conception of Americana. It’s because a foundational stone of who I am as a genre fiction reader (and, consequently, wannabe writer) and who Hill is as a bona fide professional storyteller is the literary oeuvre of one man: Stephen King.
It’s unfair to insert the accomplished parent into a review of the equally accomplished progeny and even more unfair to up and practically credit the latter’s work to the former as I just did in unforgivably reductionist fashion. I was, of course, overstating for effect. But just like you can’t quite help thinking about father David when Brandon Cronenberg does body horror, it’s difficult to begin one’s thoughts on NOS4A2 in particular without considering King. It’s not just the winking references (exclamations of “my life for you” and “hiyo Silver”) or superficial similarities like the rhyming psychopaths, supernaturally charged cars, and ubiquitous children’s songs. It’s the fact that NOS4A2—a relentless, profoundly disturbing monster of a book—reads at every level like King’s work at its prime, a discomfiting mix of the otherworldly and quotidian, seeded with buried psychic traumas and iconic representations of pure evil.
NOS4A2 concerns itself with an eventful chunk of New England native Victoria McQueen’s life, beginning with her teenage years as the troubled and restless product of a doomed marriage and continuing into her adulthood as mother, bike enthusiast, and children’s book author/illustrator. Particularly notable, however, is her ability—while on her bike—to manifest a magical covered bridge that can transport her instantaneously, sometimes over hundreds of miles, to things she might be looking for. If that sounds vague, it’s because the bridge works rather like a disgruntled genie; what she’s looking for may not necessarily be good for her. If, for example, she’s feeling rebellious and looking for “trouble,” what lies on the other side of the bridge mightn’t be pleasant. As it happens, others can travel these liminal spaces too and significant among these travelers is Charles Talent Manx, an ancient predator whose vehicle of choice is an antique Rolls with the license number NOS4A2. This gangling troll, evocatively described as a cross between Keith Richards and Lance Henriksen (my Aliens-loving imagination ret-conned this into Klaus Kinski times Dave McKean’s Joker), kidnaps children and takes them to Christmasland, a lair between worlds, where he feeds on their positive energies like a psychic leech.
As far as high concepts go, it’s a great one. Unlike his previous novels (short and focused), this 700-page project sprawls across space and time in true Stephen King style, giving it the scale necessary to delve into the psyches of the memorable cast of characters. Vic is a quintessential King protagonist, her battles with Manx paralleled by internal struggles, her entire narrative haunted by the twin specters of addiction and family dysfunction. Hill’s streak of progressive humanism runs strong in Vic; she’s nothing if not an obscene gesture directed at traditionalist conceptions of motherhood and femininity. Manx is an inspired riff on malevolent entities equally familiar, a perverse cross-mutation of Kurt Barlow (Salem’s Lot) and Pennywise (It). Vic’s son Bruce, her nerdy partner Lou, and Manx’s deranged associate Bing also get their day in the sun, the distinctly human drama of their stories serving to ground the larger supernatural framework. Despite the detail with which Hill fleshes out his world and its inhabitants, he never wanders the way King does in many of his later books. His prose is taut and propulsive, skipping lightly from one point of view to another. This is also an incongruously funny novel, filled with the characters’ wry observations and Hill’s own meta gags (the license plate is only one of numerous jokey references). Even the villains are funny in their own twisted fashion; there’s something comically absurd about the childlike, bumbling Bing (“Boys who yelp get no help”) and his relationship with his annoyed, impatient master. It evokes old Hollywood comedy acts almost as often as the more thematically suitable Dracula/Renfield connection and works all the better for it.
It seems faintly ridiculous that it would take this long for me to deduce that King’s influence has a strong hand in his son’s work. The part of me that bristles every time someone says “nepotism” in a discussion of Lena Dunham worked hard to separate Stephen and Joe, to consider them as independent of one another. The fact that the latter’s last two novels—Horns and Heart-Shaped Box—weren’t so conspicuously King-like helped preserve my delusion. What NOS4A2 does is dredge up all the King-isms that had hitherto festered in such fecund fashion under the surface and, more importantly, emphasize the fact that this is not a bad thing. The earliest seeds of my development as a pop-culture addict were planted by two artifacts: Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman and King’s It. Given that fact, the admission that Hill’s work and his father’s are inextricably linked in my head is, I’ve realized, the highest compliment I can give him. This isn’t to say that Hill isn’t his own writer, one of the most inventive, entertaining and—yes—distinctive voices in contemporary horror fiction. It just means that I have a silly image in my head of this immortal Connor McLeodian figure of a writer, working his way through the years, learning from his ups and downs and making sure that there’s a Randall Flagg, a Jack Torrance, or a Charlie Manx for future generations of horror fans. In perpetuity. The thought is comforting.
Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 was released on April 30 by William Morrow. To purchase it, click here.