It’s the mid eighties, the land of Stranger Things nostalgia, and eight year old Victoria ‘Vic’ McQueen (aka The Brat) has just discovered something interesting: if she hops on her bike and cycles through to a certain spot in the woods by the river, a magic bridge will appear. Whenever something has been lost all Vic has to do is cross the bridge and she will end up where the lost object is. But something else is lost as well: across the country, young children and their mothers are kidnapped by a man in a gas mask and another man, who calls himself Charlie Manx and drives around in a decked out Rolls Royce. Charlie wants to take the children to Christmasland, he says, away from their abusive parents and unused potential. His license plate reads NOS4A2. It’s pronounced ‘Nosferatu’.
Hill is hardly the first person to take the concept of Christmas and turn it into something sinister, but he does it well. It’s not just the concept of the Christian holiday, though; Jesus doesn’t really feature into it except for a brief cameo (a burnt-out statue in a basement somewhere, where He doesn’t exactly provide solace). Instead it focuses on the all-American concept of Christmas, with presents and gingerbread, Santa and reindeer, theme parks and capitalism. It’s done well, but where the novel really excels is at the new-and-improved take on the vampire myth. Manx isn’t the typical drink-your-blood type of vampire, or even get-lifeforce-from-your-fear metaphorical vampire. He’s something much more sinister. In that sense, the novel is deeply tongue in cheek and full of pop culture references. The X-Files is mentioned more than once; one of the characters listens to Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet, and there are probably many references that I missed because I am chronically uncool.
It’s not perfect, though it is very good. Most of the characters are well done. Manx’ motivation is never really explored, but it doesn’t need to be; he’s driven by evil, that’s about it. It makes him hard to grasp. Equally terrifying is Bing, his aide, a grotesque man-child driven by puerile impulses and a complete lack of remorse. There are others too: Vic, her son Wayne and her ex-husband Lou, to whom she is still very close; her parents, and Maggie, a girl who comes to her aid. As per usual, the men are fleshed out pretty well (literally, in the case of Lou) but the women come across as a little too Manic Pixie Dream Girl for my liking. They like motorbikes, know how to ride them and fix them, they wear scrabble tiles for earrings, they are covered in tattoos and like comic books and Star Wars. One of them has a gun-shaped paperweight labelled PROPERTY OF R. CHEKOV. You get the gist of it.
I also thought the novel was far too long. My edition clocked in at over six hundred pages, and though the pace is high the plot is also incredibly convoluted to a point where I just felt tired reading it. I think it could have done with a fair bit of oversimplification.
Nevertheless, as a whole, I enjoyed this one. I thought it was well done, an original take on vampire myths and probably, to some degree, a scathing indictment of the commercialisation of Christmas. Or something. It doesn’t really matter. If you’re looking to scare people, a rapist wearing a gas mask will probably do the trick.