Joe Hil’s ‘NOS4A2’ brings a horror story to Christmasland

Joe Hill’s third book, “NOS4A2,” bares a vanity license plate on the cover. Sound it out, though, and you realize Hill’s going to take you on a drive with Nosferatu for a modern adaptation to the classic vampire movie.

The book opens when the protagonist Victoria “Vic” McQueen is 8 years old. With her trusty Raleigh bicycle, she discovers that she has an uncanny knack for finding missing things – and escaping unpleasant family situations.

Vic’s bike takes her over a mysterious covered bridge in the woods near her house – a bridge that always takes her where she needs to be. The trouble is that every time she crosses the bridge, a little bit of her is “lost” when she finds what she’s looking for. Later in the book we realize that every trip across the Shorter Way Bridge – Hill’s version of the “Bridge of Terabithia” – cost her a little piece of her sanity.

As a teenager, Vic has trouble understanding her unusual ability, so she seeks someone who can help her and is taken to Here, Iowa, where she meets a stuttering young librarian who can tell the future with Scrabble tiles. Maggie, the librarian, explains that there are more people like them who are “strong creative” who can conjure “inscapes” from their imagination. The idea of an inscape was derived from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame,” which is reprinted in the book.

Maggie warns Vic to stay away from the Wraith – a classic 1338 Rolls Royce that has evil powers of its own. Vic is curious, though, and doesn’t listen to Maggie’s warning.

The book then picks up where it began with the storyline of Charles Talent Manx, who was comatose in a state prison facility but suddenly regained movement and vocabulary. The reason Manx is coming alive is because someone is fixing the Wraith – giving it new life as a restored classic car. The car and Manx have a connection, and the Wraith is how Manx revives himself; he’s reported to be 140 years old, but gets younger as he “absorbs” the children he takes to Christmasland.

Christmasland sounds like a glorious place where Christmas is celebrated all year long and children are encouraged to play, eat cookies and have fun. But Christmasland is Manx’s “inscape” and it’s a far darker world than the children realize. Children who go on a ride with Manx never return, that is, until Manx encounters 17-year-old Vic. She is the only one who got away from the Sleigh House – and she spends the rest of her life battling with the demons in her head and trying to forget Manx.

But Manx never forgot about the one who got away and when he’s finally revived, he hits the road to find her. Only now Vic is an unwed mother with a young son, and if Manx can’t have Vic, he will take her son.

(I enjoyed the Easter eggs throughout the book that are homage to Hill’s father, Stephen King. Manx is much like Pennywise the clown from “It,” and his car is a “thinking” being, much like “Christine.” I also liked that the vampire is a villain, and not a sparkly, romantic being that has become popular thanks to Stephenie Meyer.)

Vic also is a tortured soul, a troubled and flawed main character, which makes her relatable. When she struggles with addiction and mental instability, is fits seamlessly into the storyline and doesn’t seem contrived. Whatever happened to Vic during her time with Manx caused her to grow up to be self-destructive, whether she believed it happened or not: “What Charlie Manx had not been able to do, she had been trying to do for him ever since.”

The message that there’s always a price to pay for our actions is a good one – Maggie’s stutter increases the more she uses her Scrabble tiles and Vic’s sanity breaks down each time she crosses the bridge. The only one who didn’t seem to have negative repercussions for his dastardly deeds was Manx, and some of his backstory could have been fleshed out a bit more for clarity. Manx also doesn’t seem to suffer for shifting between worlds, and maybe his mastery of the inscapes was part of his longevity; something that seemed to trouble the much younger Vic and Maggie.

Although I enjoyed the subplots, the book was a bit too long for me. I felt as if the story could have been whittled down to several hundred pages instead of its 700. It wasn’t that there were wordy scenes, it was just that the climax of the book was a chase scene that seemed to drag on. The chapters also were set up in a very unusual manner so it was difficult to tell how far I really had read at a time.

And I really think the “Search Engine” children’s book series that Vic creates as an adult – being artistic calms her nerves and keeps the demon phone calls at bay – could be expanded by Hill into its own graphic novel series.

I read this book over the Christmas holiday and it was surprising how easy it is to get creeped out during the happiest, jolliest season. Hearing Christmas music in the middle of summer blaring from an antique car driven by an old man who looks like Keith Richards? Yeah, that’s a pretty creepy image and one that made me turn page after page to see how it culminated.

Without giving too much away, the book ended with a bang, and Vic yelling out her rally cry, “He wants Christmas? I’ll give him the Fourth of July.” And even though Manx may be gone, Christmasland still holds an allure for someone Vic loves. And that makes for an especially horrifying ending.