In NOS4A2, Joe Hill takes his remarkable eye for detail and applies it to a wide and expansive universe full of rich, memorable characters. The general throughline is Victoria McQueen and the discovery of inscapes. As a child, Victoria (or Brat, as her father calls her) finds out that if she rides her bike fast enough, she can make a demolished bridge appear that leads her to whatever she looking for. A fight with her parents leads her straight into trouble: a serial child abductor named Charles Manx. Manx also has an inscape that lets him bring good little boys and girls to Christmasland, a paradise in his own imagination.
The inscape concept is great. Hill creates a world where everyday people discover tricks or objects that let them do extraordinary things. One young woman can answer any question using a bag of Scrabble tiles (no proper nouns). Charles Manx uses an antique limousine to travel undetected on highways that only exist in his imagination. And Victoria makes a physical bridge appear between her location and whatever she’s searching for.
These powers are highly destructive. Each time you access your inscape, it causes more harm. The clearest physical manifestation happens to the poor Scrabble librarian. Every time she spells out a reading, her stutter gets worse. The damage is irreversible. The powers are so strong and tempting people will destroy their souls, their sanity, and their bodies to access them one more time.
NOS4A2 is filled with clever details. The one exception, for me, is the title. Charles Manx has a vanity license plate, NOS4A2, that is supposed to be an approximation of Nosferatu. His wife likened him to the silent movie villain and he liked the nickname. I knew going in that the title stood for something but forgot what. The reveal in the novel made me resent the too-clever detail. A child abductor who swears the victims are given eternal life calling his vehicle Nosferatu/NOS4AN? A bit too on the nose for me.
But so much of the book actually is clever. The Scrabble player basically draws out a hand that spells out what she’s looking for; she has to unscramble the letters to actually give the message. Victoria creates a children’s book series called Search Engine about a motorcycle able to find his way through the most ridiculous maps to find anything. She also names her son Bruce Wayne at the insistence of her comic book-obsessed husband; her son is named after Batman and she loses a little bit of her grip on reality every time a bat escapes from her rapidly deteriorating inscape bridge. This is the kind of detail that makes NOS4A2 such a great read.
Joe Hill also goes for an extreme and brutal approach to horror that still doesn’t sit well with me. The opening passage of the book introduces everything you need to know about the novel without context. It really is just a shocking dry open where a woman’s child is threatened just for being an innocent child. Manx’s motivation is saving good kids from bad parents, but his methods are more disturbing than you’d imagine. It’s very graphic. I could accept the violence in Heart-Shaped Box because it felt safer–pure paranormal horror with some sad casualties. This is real life horror pulled into a dark fantasy landscape and that makes a huge difference.
NOS4A2 is for the seasoned horror fan only. The level of unrepentant violence and depravity is shorthanded in a way that gives some but not all readers much needed context. The genre nods are clever–his father, Stephen King, is called out quite a lot in setting and the design of inscapes–but not clear enough to make the child abduction/abuse angle any easier to read. It’s a fantastically layered narrative with great characters but just a bit too brutal for most readers.
Robert runs the media criticism site Sketchy Details. You should follow him for sharp commentary on the entertainment industry.