Joe Hill is on a winning streak. His comic series, Locke and Key, is reaching the end of its acclaimed run, and the film adaptation of his last novel, Horns, is set to hit the big screen this fall.
Considering Hill’s pedigree, maybe it’s not a huge surprise — his dad is Stephen King, author of countless bestselling horror and fantasy novels. The man is an industry. Hill isn’t riding on his famous father’s laurels, however. His pen name, Joe Hill, is lifted from his full name, Joseph Hillstrom King. He wanted his fiction (Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts) to succeed independent of his family connections, and he pulled it off. (His identity was revealed in 2007, after those first two works were published.) His latest novel, NOS4A2, is not only his best yet, but in many ways, the greatest book dear ol’ dad never wrote.
Unlike the self-contained worlds of his other novels and stories, NOS4A2 is a grand epic, the kind of horror-fantasy yarn that’s gobbled up by both genre fans and readers looking for a more literate beach book. It opens with Victoria, a young girl whose mild psychic ability makes her handy at locating lost keys and photos. It also attracts the attention of Charles Manx, an evil being who travels lonely highways in his plush Rolls Royce looking for wayward misfits and children he can take to his otherworldly realm, dubbed Christmasland. Obviously, the place isn’t as happy as it sounds. (The vanity plate on his car is NOS4A2. Though Manx is vampire-like, this isn’t a vampire tale.) Victoria barely survives her encounter with Manx and, many years later, would rather forget that she ever crossed his path. Manx, however, hasn’t forgotten, and comes looking for his elusive prey.
NOS4A2 is full of ghostly spirits, blood, murder and things going bump in the night — all requisite details for a good horror novel, and Hill renders it with icky, crimson aplomb. If that were all the novel was, it’d be merely a pulpy page-turner. What he’s written, however, is closer to the sprawling American fiction popularized by writers like John Steinbeck — character-driven plots that are endlessly digressive and ultimately concerned with world-building — than just another scary story. Sounds a lot like Stephen King’s best work, and in many ways it is — Hill is just as concerned with narrative structure and microscopic character design.
It’s a huge tome — about 700 pages — but reads like it’s less than half that length, made all the more impressive by the grand mythology, characters and plot that Hill packs into every page. Additionally, fans of Stephen King will recognize the few shout-outs to his fiction. Hill explicitly references a few details from his dad’s work (you’ll know them if you spot them), as if NOS4A2 exists in the same fictional world. It sounds like crass commercialism, but comes off as something closer to homage. This is genre fiction at its best.
by Joe Hill
William Morrow, 704 pp.