by Joe Hill
Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country.
Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4R2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.”
Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.
I’m so glad I finally read a Joe Hill novel!
Hill is one of those horror authors whose work I’ve always meant to try; I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest fan of Stephen King’s work, but I’ve always had a feeling that I’d like Hill’s stuff, and I was right. (Part of me can’t help wondering if it’s right to compare the two of them – they’re father and son, not the same person – but it would be impossible for a horror writer who’s the son of probably the most famous horror writer in the world not to be influenced by him in some way.)
NOS4R2 is a novel that does a few of my favourite things. We follow a heroine who’s a mother, but being a mother isn’t all she is – in fact because we get to know Vic McQueen long before she becomes a mother herself, we already have a sense of who she is – and she’s a mother who has to save her child from a villain she herself faced in her childhood. I love stories about parents trying to protect their children from the kinds of mistakes they made in their youth, especially in fantasy, so this book was always going to be up my street.
As a child Vic had a bike that could take her anywhere she needed to go, often when she was looking for lost things. Charlie Manx and his 1938 Rolls Royce take children away to Christmasland, and it’s nowhere near as idyllic as it sounds. Then again, neither is Manx. When Vic goes looking for trouble, finds Manx and becomes the first child to ever escape from him, Manx returns years later to get his own back – by taking Vic’s son, Wayne, instead.
I love Vic. She’s a messy and messed up human being, but that doesn’t stop her from being a character we want to see thrive or a character we can sympathise with. One of my favourite things about this book was that Hill doesn’t pretend that, after escaping Manx, Vic is perfectly fine and gets on with her life. Almost dying at the hands of someone who’s been stealing children for years isn’t the kind of thing anyone could simply get over, and Vic lives with what almost happened to her, and what did happen to her, for the rest of her life. Surviving something like this means surviving it every day afterwards, and Vic struggles – especially when there’s no one she can tell about her bike that could help her find things without ending up in a straitjacket.
In fact there weren’t many characters I disliked. Obviously Manx and his assistant, Bing, aren’t the kind of people you’d like to meet in a dark alley, but they’re still characters that are understandable. I could have done without all the mentions of how Bing liked to sexually assault the mothers of the children Manx stole, but if I’m going to continue to read horror then sexual assault is something I’m probably going to have to get used to seeing.
I loved the other characters, though, such as Lou and Wayne. I loved how much Wayne loved his parents, and how much he was like an adult in the body of a 12 year old and had to be to deal with the parents he had. Not because they’re bad people or even bad parents, but because both Vic and Lou are still dealing with old hurts that they haven’t been able to grow away from. His relationship with Vic and Lou was lovely, as was Vic and Lou’s relationship. I loved them as a little unit of three, and Lou was such a sweetheart.
Much like everyone else he wasn’t perfect, but he was inherently good and exactly what Vic needed. I did start to get a little frustrated with how often his weight was brought up; I understood that Lou was obese, I didn’t need it brought up every single time he was on the page. I just feel like Lou deserved a little better than that. Having said that, considering his weight was something he hated about himself, I did love that it was often brought up when we were following Lou himself, and yet whenever Vic thought of Lou she never mentioned his weight at all. Instead she talked about how safe he made her feel, how she loved the way he smelled, and how much a genuinely nice guy he was. That was a clever narrative choice on Hill’s part, and it said a lot about how we perceive ourselves vs how other people perceive us.
It worked both ways, too. Vic thought of herself as a failure throughout the majority of her adult life, but Lou and Wayne never did.
Hill played around with perspective really well when he wrote Vic’s parents, too. When Vic is a child who’s close to her father and idealises him, her mother seems like a terrible and incredibly annoying parent. It’s only when Vic’s older that she’s able to appreciate her mother and acknowledge that, while she thought the world of her father, he wasn’t actually the best person and he certainly wasn’t a good husband.
Despite this book being on the chunkier side, with my edition almost 700 pages long, it’s very readable and a book I moved through quickly. That said, for as long as it was I was surprised we didn’t spend more time in Christmasland and there are a few scenes that probably could have been cut. I was never bored, though, and whenever I put it down I looked forward to picking it up again.
But I am surprised this didn’t frighten me! Bing was more annoying than intimidating, although knowing what he was doing with the women they kidnapped was disgusting and I wanted him dead, but I’m surprised by how much Manx didn’t frighten me, and I was expecting him to. Just the name ‘Charlie Manx’ sounds like it belongs to a serial killer, the kind that true crime podcasts would obsess over, but I was never scared of him. Would I want him turning up at my house? God no, but I think this is the kind of horror novel that I’m going to remember more for its protagonists than its antagonists, and to be honest I’m fine with that. I love Vic, and I can’t wait to try more of Hill’s work.