NOS4R2 is an intelligent, thrilling and highly imaginative supernatural horror novel, which in spite of its title has nothing to do with traditional vampires; no, Charlie Manx’s leaching power is far more sinister and insidious. Manx drives around in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith which bears the license plate NOS4R2 (a reference to the vampire of the classic 1922 German silent-film enititled ‘Nosferatu’), capturing children after murdering their families to take them to a place called ‘Christmasland’. In Christmasland, it is Christmas every day and unhappiness is against the law; it is a place that exists solely inside Manx’s head, it is his ‘inscape’. Manx traps the children there forever and ever, stealing their life to retain his youth, leaving them as empty, soulless, hook-toothed monsters.
But other people have inscapes too, such as Maggie Leigh, who can read the future in her magic Scrabble tiles and the protagonist Victoria “Vic” or “The Brat” McQueen, who uses her inscape - a magic covered bridge - to find things which are irretrievably lost on her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike. As a child Vic encounters Manx, and is the only person to ever escape the Wraith, but now Manx is on the road again; Vic is desperate to forget, but Manx has not forgotten her, and he has acquired a new target - Vic’s own son, Wayne.
In NOS4R2, Joe Hill achieved something that most would consider to be impossible - to make Christmas into a scary concept. This inversion of an archetypal Christmas is very clever and I must salute Hill for his intelligence and inventiveness. The story is incredibly well thought out and interesting, and it is actually frightening. Manx’s ability to spirit children away into his own private inscape is chilling, as it is virtually impossible to retrieve anyone from Christmasland; the evil place existing only inside Manx’s mind. The transformation of the children into creepy little demons is also horrifying and visually written. There is a particularly unnerving part when Wayne has been kidnapped and is travelling to Christmasland with Manx, his teeth falling out to make room for the hooks, and some of the things he thinks are downright disturbing:
“Wayne waved. The little girl saw him and waved back. Wow, she had great hair. You could make a rope four feet long out of all that smooth, golden hair. You could make a silky golden noose and hang her with it. That was a wild idea! Wayne wondered if anyone had ever been hung with their own hair.”
Despite the inspired and twisted nature of the story and the sharp writing style, for me the characters let this book down a little: Vic’s personality in particular prevented me from really loving NOS4R2. I understand that Hill wanted her to be troubled and to highlight the difficulties of mental health issues, but I found her to be very self-pitying, whiney and overall quite unlikeable. She is also purposefully quirky and unconventional as a protagonist - for example her love of motorbikes and the fact that she’s covered in tattoos - as though this should make her interesting, but it doesn’t. Furthermore, this sort of character has already been done in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
Although the concept of Christmasland and the creepy soulless children are terrifying, the villains themselves are not very scary. In fact they sometimes act like bumbling idiots - particularly Bing, or the Gasmask man, who works for Charlie Manx. Bing is an unhinged, sociopathic individual; he uses Gingerbread flavoured gas to put the parents to sleep and then will do with whatever he pleases with their unconscious bodies until he finally decides to kill them; he constantly yearns for Manx's approval. Manx for the most part seems like a rather jovial old man - albeit one who can turn at any second; he reminds me of a fairy-tale creature who can transform from an kind elderly woman into a wicked witch at whim. He genuinely seemed to think he was doing the kids a favour by taking them away from their parents, which makes him more mad than evil; he didn’t seem to have coherent motivations.
Furthermore, the book is long - nearly 700 pages, and it feels a little padded and not very well-paced; the story spans from when Vic is a little girl in 1986 all the way to present day, which means some parts are boring and drawn out.
NOS4R2 does not live up to Horns, but it is enjoyable, clever and inventive. The characters were mostly lacking for me - except for Wayne and his father, the superhero fanatic and horrendously overweight Lou - and it is too long. Nonetheless, NOS4R2 manages to be both a horrifying story and emotionally rich at the same time. The writing is engaging, the concept is spine-chilling, and the story is captivating.
My other Joe Hill reviews: