The title of Joe Hill’s new novel, NOS4A2, is a play on the word Nosferatu. The word is a synonym for vampire and it was made famous by F.W. Murnau’s iconic horror film featuring a gangly, bald headed and pointy nosed vampire called Count Orlok played by an actor called Max Schreck. Joe Hill cleverly transplants the unforgettable visage of Schreck’s Orlok into his clever and exciting story of good versus evil. Besides appropriating this archetypal character, Hill fully exploits the creepiness of Christmas. Christmas jolliness, early and/or excessive Christmas caroling and extravagant Christmas decorations belong to the same category of awful creepiness as clowns and church choir boys with glowing eyes (that’s a reference to a Bonnie Tyler video, by the way.) Christmas is one of those unctuously good things that crosses over from cloying into creepiness and even sheer terror. Joe Hill uses both of these conceits, the grotesque image of Schreck as Nosferatu, and the gaudy and chilling iconography of Christmas, to build an enormously entertaining adventure novel that I predict will be a bust-out best-selling blockbuster. Mark my words.
I won’t spoil the novel for anyone here but it’s about a battle between good and evil, with good embodied in a woman named Victoria (Vic, The Brat) and evil in Charlie Manx, a Nosferatu-like monster who is a serial kidnapper of children and worse, much worse. In addition to this basic conflict, Hill uses interdimensional travel to propel both the movement of his two protagonists and the feverish turning of pages by his readers. For Vic, this kind of travel is facilitated by an invisible bridge, and for Manx, by a supernatural 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with the vanity plate NOS4A2. These “magical” canals and vehicles function to transport the characters between different spaces but also between the magical (or nightmarish) spaces that live inside of us and which can bleed out into the real world. Good and evil are not only the stuff of actions in the real world, of things, but also the stuff of our inscapes or inner worlds and subjectivity. Pure evil is a function of the darkness inside a person’s soul, as goodness is of the light. In Hill’s novelistic world, subjectivity and interiority are sources of power, motion, transformation and communication. They are the seat of evil and of redemption. It’s this kind of ‘world-building’ (a term we usually use to talk about fantasy or science fiction novels) that makes Hill’s new novel a superior popular entertainment. There’s magic in it but Hill doesn’t ask us to accept it at face value, unquestioningly. He makes us believe it as readers by explaining it to us.
So there’s magic, and fear, but there’s also a lot of real life in these pages. Vic and the characters that surround her are not types but real, imperfect people. Another praiseworthy characteristic of the novel is how Hill breaks down some of its most exciting parts into separate chapters, shifting from one character’s point of view to another. I don’t recall this technique in other novels but it’s really effective here. It’s original without being pretentious, allowing the narrative perspective to move around space and do “replays” from different angles, so to speak. Fun stuff.
Ever since 20th Century Ghosts I’ve admired Joe Hill. He manages to preserve the pleasure of genre literature while also indicating a savvy feel for its ambiguities and symbolic possibilities. He’s not a shock jock nor a torture porn guy. He doesn’t jump out at you in a cheap shot of fear. Instead, he respects the experience of the uncanny, and expertly tilts it toward outright fear and lemme outta here! In particular,in 20th Century Ghosts, the story “Best New Horror” manages to be self-aware and even postmodern but not in an annoying or pretentious way. Then, Hill ratchets up the imagery and the tension and creates a dense masterpiece that is as rich as an Escher design but also just crazy scary dammit. From that moment on I knew that Joe Hill was a special writer.
NOS4A2 is a different kind of story in comparison to “Best New Horror.” I wouldn’t call it horror and quit there, although it has creepy and terrifying elements we would associate with other horror novels. I would prefer to call it magical realism with adventure story thrown into the mix. It is written on a broad canvas, full of big ideas that are thought through with care, and delivered with appealing characters and honest plotting.
Joe Hill has been very successful so far with his two novels and short stories, but I fully expect NOS4A2 to catapult him to a new level of popularity. What’s more exciting is to see a writer who was already excellent become more ambitious and experimental and pull off a big fun book like this one. In other words, we can continue to expect great things from Joe Hill.
© Christopher Conway, 2013. All Rights Reserved.