“Fantasy was always only a reality waiting to be switched on.” (NOS4R2)
Many reviews of Joe Hill’s work begin by comparing him to his famous father, Stephen King. I’m going to skip that (though apparently I’m still going to mention it, as this is unavoidable even if it is something they’re both probably tired of). I haven’t read much of Stephen King’s work, anyway. I’ll tell you whose work I have read a lot of, however – Joe Hill himself. And I have to say, I’ll be very surprised if Mr Hill doesn’t end up being at least as well-known as his father, if not more so.
Joe Hill’s Locke and Key comics, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (who deserves just as much of the credit), is the greatest comic series I’ve read since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Another of Joe Hill’s novels, Horns, I also loved – although I wrote a 5000-word mini-dissertation on Satan in literature shortly before reading it, and I felt like Joe Hill got it, like he agreed with all the conclusions I’d come to on some strange level, so it was very much one of those books you read at exactly the right time to fall in love with it no matter what.
NOS4R2, or NOS4A2 in America (presumably so the pun still makes linguistic sense) is another of Joe Hill’s novels. It is so called because it is the numberplate on the semi-demonic Rolls Royce Wraith owned by the novel’s primary antagonist, a Nosferatu-like figure known as Charles Talent Manx the III. Charlie Manx is the figure who very much dominates the pages of the novel, and the one who haunts your nightmares afterwards. I came across NOS4R2 in very different circumstances to Horns. I didn’t seek it out due to any prior interest – I just happened to win it in a Twitter competition being held by Gollancz. Gollancz asked what custom numberplate Joe Hill would have on his car – after a moment’s thought, I replied with what I thought would be a good semi-coherent pun: “STORY-ENG1N3.”
On reading the book, “STORY-ENG1N3” proved to be far more apt than intended. Joe Hill has described NOS4R2 as his extended thesis on horror fiction, and I can see why. In the world of NOS4R2 – a world which Hill implies also encompasses his other works, such as Locke & Key and Horns, and even some of his father’s work – the origin of the “magic realism” which characterizes horror is revealed to be “super-creatives.” These are people who bring their inscapes out into the wider world, like a sculptor bringing the statue in his head to reality, or a horror author giving life to a story he’s dreamed up by putting it to paper. Hill deliberately incorporating the canon of other works into this one isn’t just a bit of fanservice intended to make people like me excited; it also deliberately extends the idea of the “super-creative” to retroactively provide an interesting and open-ended explanation for the impossibilities to which horror gives life.
Furthermore, Hill also uses this to highlight a particular trope of horror – the way in which seemingly mundane places or objects are given a scary, supernatural significance. The power of the “super-creative” relies on an item close to them – like Charlie Manx’s car, or Jason’s machete, or the titular play in The King in Yellow. These items give them access to their “inscapes” – lets them drive or otherwise travel to semi-mythic locations of haunted or otherwise supernatural significance, such as Charlie Manx’s horrible Christmasland, or the well in The Ring, or the titular landscape of Clive Barker’s Imajica. The effect really is something of a thesis, or masterclass, on the semi-mythic process of writing horror, of drawing the horrible and the strange from your head into reality – and it means that Charlie Manx’s car, and Charlie Manx, and the novel’s protagonist Vic McQueen and her Triumph motorbike, and the novel itself and Joe Hill and all horror, really are each something of a “story engine.” And that Hill has engineered what amounts to a constantly self-creating mythos.
This has gone from a review to an essay, which is how you can tell how much I liked NOS4R2. I don’t want to give the impression that its thematic implications are the most interesting thing about it, however – it’s a fast, engaging, sometimes genuinely terrifying read, which manages, like all great horror, to take something ordinary and make it horrifying – in this case, Christmas. Christmas songs will never sound the same to me again. If you’re a fan of horror, or of good fiction in general, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Hill builds an amazing horror mythos and populates it with sharply-drawn, painfully real characters – he has an awe-inspiring ability to make his characters seem as flawed and contradictory as real people are, sometimes in the space of a few sentences, seemingly without effort and without compromising either their role in the plot or the reader’s empathy. This is one of the greatest things about Hill’s writing, and something I’ve come to specifically look forward to after seeing it in both Locke & Key and Horns.
I do have some reservations about NOS4R2, but unfortunately most are to do with the book’s ending – so I won’t go into much detail, being as vague as humanly possible, but even so, if you’re averse to spoilers, don’t read beyond this point! Just go buy the book. It’s great, and you need to read it. Got it? Good.
Okay, spoiler territory ahead. Just to make things clear: what you should take away from this review is that the book is a masterpiece, masterfully written, and is certainly worth a read, especially by horror fans. But I do have some relatively minor problems with its ending – while perfectly adequate, I don’t think it quite lives up to the pace and expectations which have been built up throughout the novel. More importantly, however, the very last few pages turn the ending from a tragic one, to an unambiguously happy one. I think Hill overshot the mark slightly here – with relatively few changes, I feel he could’ve ended on a halfway point between the two, on the exact kind of bittersweet note that the novel demands, rather than the quite puzzlingly happy one which seems to slightly weaken all that has gone before it.
But honestly, that was the most minor of criticisms, and I only make it because Hill sets such a high standard throughout. Go and buy NOS4R2. I’m eagerly anticipating the end of Locke & Key, as well as whatever else Hill brings to us in the future.