I read Joe Hill’s Horns last August—the first I’ve ever read of him—and immediately bought two more of his books, Heart-Shaped Box and (his latest novel) NOS4A2. Horns was rather engrossing, Hill deftly handling what could have been a tongue-in-cheek premise for a horror story—a man wakes up to find that horns are growing out of his head—by injecting it with lots of heart. I wrote a short note about it a while back, called it “quite a delicious manifesto on all the horrid little things people keep inside them, small uglies that rise to the surface at the smallest provocation.” Which basically means I enjoyed myself.
There’s comparatively a more expansive ambition to NOS4A2. The premise seems simple, but grows into something more complex (relying as it does on the more intricate world-logic of Hill’s own making). At the center is Victoria McQueen, who finds things—she rides her bike into a bridge that shouldn’t exist, and whatever she was in search for lies at the other end. When she looks for “trouble,” she comes up against Charlie Manx—the sort of Messianic psychotic who preys on little children with the help of his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith (with the NOS4A2 vanity plate) and takes off with them to Christmasland, the best excuse to cancel Christmas, if anything—and she escapes. Essentially, it’s a battle of good and evil. As with stories of the folksy supernatural I’ve grown to love—I’m looking at you, Steve King—we have a normal human being pitted against that which brings the terrors.
But the complexity, the generosity, of NOS4A2 stems from this neat and satisfying quid pro quo at work in Hill’s world: When one is given the dubious gift of reaching into the in-between world (as Vic McQueen does with lost things, as Charlie Manx does with his Christmasland) the price is far from negligible—there is an actual physical toll and grave psychological consequences (which in turn muck up a life you’re trying to live nobly, if you’re a normal, decent human being). The first manifestation in Vic are the debilitating migraines, the fevers. As we move forward with her story, see her grow up from a pretty content kid to a risk-taking adolescent and then into an adult who, for all intents and purposes, is more than a little frayed at the edges, you’ll be witness to the undeniable stamp of her guilt: It takes from you. And because NOS4A2 continues way beyond after Victoria McQueen’s escape—the only child to ever do so, from Charlie Manx—we see the totality of the damage. Every use is not unlike scraping a little off the top of the part of one’s brain responsible for sanity. Vic McQueen fucks up, and repeatedly. After a while, the psychological toll of her experience with her “gift” and with Charlie Manx can only encourage clusterfucks of her own making. The damage becomes inherent.
Important things are always at stake in NOS4A2. That’s what makes it so damned brave and satisfying, and truly horrifying. Beyond the creepy children trapped in Christmasland, more than Charlie Manx’s vendetta against Vic McQueen and the pocket of horror he’d built for himself in Christmasland, more than his sidekick who stretches the boundaries of what true inhumanity could signify, more than the fact that this book never ever pulled any punches with its oh so very damaged heroine—the disquiet and utter terror one finds in NOS4A2 is the truth that you will always have something to lose, no matter how firmly you’ve convinced yourself that nothing good has remained in you, of you, for you.