A Review of NOS4R2 (a.k.a NOS4A2 for you Americans)

“Fantasy was always only a reality waiting to be switched on.” (NOS4R2)

A creepy man in a creepy car.

The (excellent) British cover.

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.”

I'm not sure who I can credit this excellent fanart to, as I found it on Joe Hill's tumblr. If someone knows who to credit, let me know!

I’m not sure who I can credit this excellent fanart to, as I found it on Joe Hill’s tumblr. If someone knows who to credit, let me know!

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.

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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.

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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.

The New Deadwardians is Bloody Good

I promised you I’d talk about something I actually liked on my blog this time, and the opportunity came along sooner than expected – the very next day, I got my trade paperback copy of Dan Abnett’s The New Deadwardians in the mail. I’d read it already, but decided to devour it a second time for good measure.

It was interesting to read it again, because I attended a creative writing event at my college in-between reading it before and reading it now, and while I was there, I actually got the chance to meet and speak to Dan Abnett as well as attend a talk he gave about the process of writing his comics and novels. And what I learnt there, that I didn’t realise when I first read The New Deadwardians, was that Abnett mostly works on other people’s IP – he’s probably most famous for the Warhammer 40k Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, which I’ve heard great things about but haven’t read, but he also does everything from DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes to Scooby Doo. As such, The New Deadwardians is actually quite rare as being one of the only original IPs Abnett’s worked on amongst a huge body of work – reading it with this in mind, it actually only becomes more impressive.

I get the impression that Abnett really relished the chance to create his own universe to play around with for once – and it shows, because the universe he comes up with is both fascinating and strikingly original. The New Deadwardians is a mystery story set in an alternate history where a zombie plague struck Victorian England soon after Prince Albert’s death; in order to protect themselves from the walking dead, who they termed “the restless,” wealthy aristocrats willingly took “the cure” – and became undead themselves, pale vampires who will live forever, if you can really call it “living.”

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The cover, by the way, does a great job of neatly encapsulating this. Although it’s technically inaccurate, as in the book the vampires keep their fangs filed-down, it’s so striking that this hardly matters.

As I spoke about in a previous post, one of the best things about zombies is the wealth of damningly satirical metaphors they open themselves up to – the example I used was that zombies were, in Dawn of the Dead, a satire on consumerist culture, and this is the prevailing metaphor that surrounds them to this day. Vampires offer themselves similarly to allegory and satire – vampires are a literal representation of the “blood-sucking upper classes.” In the modern day, they’d probably be bankers and CEOs, but when vampire folklore was first codified into fiction it was the landed gentry who were the ones representing an economic drain on a lower class who had to work very hard to support their social superiors’ lavish lifestyles.

In this context, the idea of putting zombies and vampires together as one sort of great, unified class satire – where the vampires are the blood-sucking elite and the zombies represent the “great unwashed,” as the Victorians (and subsequently, Edwardians) characterized the public* – is obvious, in retrospect, yet so are most truly original ideas. And it works beautifully.

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GNNG GNNMG might be the best textual representation of a zombie moan ever

Stuck between the zombies and the vampires are the “bright” – the poor old normal humans of London, who must contend with an army of zombies surrounding the city’s walls on one side, and an army of vampires ruling over them in the Houses of Parliament on the other. The New Deadwardians follows George Suttle, the only homicide detective left in the Met, investigating the murder of one of his fellow “Young” – the term which this universe’s vampires use to describe their undead state, and by the way I love the way that words like “vampire” and “zombie” all have a coy euphemism, which not only gives the universe a unique flavour but is also a pitch-perfect parody of the Victorian/Edwardian attitude to the things they found distasteful.

The mystery plot is good, fast-paced and intriguing with a well-executed ending, and it does admirably well in economically packing a lot of content into just 8 issues. But the real attractions here are the character and thematic work, and the worldbuilding. There are many moments when Abnett would reveal a little bit more about the world he’s created – often subtly, through dialogue or background details, but always to great effect – and each tiny detail would suggest a wealth of further possibilities. For an excellent example of this, see the moment where George Suttle meets a young suffragette, who is campaigning for the right for women to be made Young, even as George tells her it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – hell, I could read a whole 8-issue comic series about her.

The other great strength of The New Deadwardians is, as I’ve noted, the themes which Abnett develops throughout, themes which also do a great job of reciprocally establishing subtle and effective characterization. The cast of The New Deadwardians are, for the most part, typically Edwardian; but the Young, who seem to lose all passion and vigour once they are made undead, take this cultural repression and understated stoicism to an extreme. More than once, George Suttle reflects that he doesn’t miss life, but he misses the idea of missing things. The effect is a potent critique of the systemic cultural and sexual repression which really was endemic to the 19th- and early-20th-century upper classes; and the zombies, hungry at the gates of London, represent not so much the British public as the aristocrats’ disastrously flawed conception of the British public.

"Spare a copper, mate?"

“Spare a copper, mate?”

All in all, The New Deadwardians is proof of a pet theory of mine – that there’s always, always, room for originality in the archetypes and concepts (like vampires and zombies) which the unimaginative tend to label as being “stale.” And there’s got to be a demand for much more of this kind of originality, if it’s going to flourish – so buy The New Deadwardians now, if you’re one of those people who thought vampire or zombies stories were “stale,” and prove yourself wrong. I really, really hope Abnett writes another series set in this universe, and it’d be a damn shame if he didn’t.

Footnotes:

* More specifically, this phrase was coined by Victorian playwright and novelist Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, who – as you can probably imagine – would certainly have been a vampire rather than a zombie.

Disembowelling the Zombie Handbook: Part 1

Over the last few months I’ve been increasingly interested in myths. Not the kind of epic Greek, Norse or Egyptian myth that involves the various misdeeds of deities whose drama-fraught immortal existences seem to more closely parallel a typical episode of Eastenders than anything else; although I do find that interesting too, to a lesser extent. No, what I’ve gotten really interested in recently is the kind of much lower-key folklore that used to keep 13th-century peasants huddled in their huts on the long winter nights, shaking salt onto the damp earth outside and hanging iron horseshoes on their door. I’m talking household myths about the Alp-luachra, the Joint-eater, the evil shape-shifting fairy-creature that crawls down your throat to feed on the food you’ve already eaten; or the Noppera-bō ghosts, who impersonate one of your friends or family, then slowly let their face melt away into a blank mask.

As far as I can tell every ancient culture, from the Celtic to the Japanese to the Aboriginal Australians, has built up a fascinating rogues’ gallery of monsters. It probably wasn’t hard, back in the days before street-lights, to look out into the vastness of the night and feel supernatural eyes staring invisibly back at you. Giving a name and a shape to those eyes probably made the nightly terror worse in some ways, but must at least have made it seem manageable; sure, the Manananggal is scary, but keep some salt and crushed garlic about your person and you’ll be safe. At least the fear of the unknown had been replaced by specifics – you just had to make sure to tell your sons and daughters about it as well, so they knew what they were up against and how to deal with it! It was an oral tradition not necessarily kept alive by poets, but by concerned mothers. The most famous modern stock types to emerge from this kind of ancient monster-lore are probably zombies and vampires.* About 2 weeks ago, on Amazon, I ordered a book on the latter and ended up with a book on the former.

The book I had wanted was very hard to track down, so I was forced to order it online from the USA. It was a work cited almost everywhere that talked about vampire mythology; by all accounts, it was academic and in-depth, clocking in at 686 pages and featuring an exhaustive catalogue of vampiric myths indexed by culture. It was also saddled with the slightly campy title The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead, but I wasn’t going to hold that against it.

When I finally received my package after weeks and weeks of waiting – remember, this had been sent to me across the Pacific via the cheapest delivery option Amazon had to offer – it felt oddly light-weight. I opened the envelope and was greeted, not by a 700-page tome, but by this:

Doesn't this just scream "academic" and "scholarly"?

Exhibit A, your honour.

Yeah. That alien-looking thing on the front is a zombie. It’s 95 pages long, though every page is mainly taken up by similar big, cartoony illustrations, with maybe a paragraph to accompany them.

Suffice it to say, I was not very impressed. As I opened the book, I became even less impressed, and grew less and less impressed as I flicked through, until I think it could safely be said that I wasn’t impressed at all.

Now, I’m actually a big fan of zombie fiction. It’s one of my favourite kinds of horror, in fact, and I can safely say I’ve consumed (no pun intended) far more zombie stuff over the years than I have vampire stuff. Sure, the cover of this thing is goofy, but it could still be fun! In fact, I believe there is a very specific saying about books, covers, and the judging thereof! And although this wasn’t the book I ordered, and although it’s much shorter, much less thorough and by a completely different author than the book I ordered, that still doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. It could be fun!

It was not fun.

Hopefully, in a few weeks the nice people at Amazon will send me the book I did order, and maybe I can review The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead here then. For now, I am going to systematically eviscerate Rob Sacchetto’s The Zombie Handbook. I am going to go to town on this thing like I’m a zombie horde and it is any character in a zombie movie who stands too near a window. There is so much stuff in The Zombie Handbook that I need to unpack. In those 100 or so pages there are so many bizarre decisions, so much shameless pandering, so much ickiness, that all I want to do at this point is try to make sense of it all.

Look out for Part 2, upcoming probably later today. Now that I’ve got the preamble out of the way, I’ll skip straight to the book itself and start rummaging around elbow-deep in its guts, pulling out the most disgusting parts and holding them up to the light. And if that analogy was a little too much for you, you might want to consider skipping Part 2 entirely, because there will be scanned images from the book itself that you will not be able to unsee.

Footnotes:

* Although the term “vampire” would have rarely been used, and the term “zombie” never.