Rating: A big, fat 5 stars out of 5
Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country.
Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.”
Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.
“…there was something awful about Christmas music when it was nearly summer. It was like a clown in the rain, with his makeup running”
As the next few weeks are likely to be taken up with posts about my (slow) journey through The Pickwick Papers, I’m going to go ahead and do something that I barely ever do. I’m going to review a book that I finished not only within the last month but within the last week. Not just because I’m worried that I’ll not get round to it when I’m trying to keep up with a read-along and the related posts but because the book was just so bloody good and I really want to impress upon you just how good.
I’ll admit that it feels strange that one of my favourite reads of the year is likely to end up being a ‘horror’ novel featuring psychopaths that rape, kidnap children and murder and some pretty devastating deaths. Pre-blog me would have been shocked and appalled. Pre-blog me wouldn’t have wanted to share a house with a book about an old man that is truly monstrous and his horrifying quest to “save” children from the evils of the world, never mind read it. I suppose what my love of it goes to show is that books can be surprising. You might think you’re in for the fright of your life and that you’ll end up clinging to your boyfriend and weeping uncontrollably but you just might end up finding a creepy story that isn’t horrid for the sake of being horrid but manages to strike just the right balance between clutching-the-sides-of-the-book-so-hard-it-hurts action and touching moments of redemption.
What I think is so clever about Joe Hill’s writing is how emotionally manipulative it is. Not in an obvious ‘I’m writing about cancer and I know I’m trying to destroy you’ way but in a way that sneaks up on you. There’s one character, for example, who doesn’t take a whole load of convincing to turn to a particularly vile life of crime, sacrificing whoever and whatever they’re told to on the back of a rather vague promise of a restful and rewarding “retirement”. Honestly, we’re talking crimes that made me feel sick. So imagine my surprise when, later on in the novel, I find myself feeling desperately sorry for said low life. And not just a passing pang of sadness either, a gut-wrenching type of pity. I had to check myself a few times and remind myself that this was still the very same person that had made me feel so disgusted and that I really needed to pull myself together. There were other examples but that’s the one that I know will really stick with me. The writing just seems to draw out whatever confusing emotion Hill wants you to feel at any given moment and it’s exhausting and deeply worrying but so, so worth it.
So the writing is brilliant and…different, somehow. The chapters sometimes run together, for example, so that the last sentence of one chapter ends with the title of the next. I felt like it should have been annoying but all it did was make the damn book even harder to put down. The story is pretty surreal in a lot of ways but also manages to feel completely real. I very much doubt that there are bikes that transport their owners across not-real-but-sort-of-real bridges and I am eternally grateful that magic Rolls Royce’s aren’t rolling around enabling all sorts of despicable crimes but I didn’t feel like I was reading something that was completely fantastical. Because there are people like Charlie Manx (albeit without the supernatural transportation) and there are people whose lives are destroyed by them. There are people that see the world differently and struggle every day. Hill’s characters are full of contradictions and flaws and are completely believable and are what really tipped this book over from great to all out amazing for me.
It felt like everybody was reading this in the run up to Christmas last year and in some ways I can see why. It’s the perfect antithesis to all of the good cheer, if that’s what you’re looking for. It takes the Christmas songs, the decorations and the chocolate treats and distorts them. But mostly, I think that Hanna was absolutely right – I can imagine that there’s something…wrong about reading about the torment Christmas songs cause Vic while singing along to Rocking Around the Christmas Tree. Sure, it’ll make the experience of reading NOS4R2 that bit more disturbing but it might also take the shine off the tinsel for you. What I’m saying is, there’s no wrong time to read this book. If you’ve been hanging on to a copy so that you can read in horror while children lose their souls to a sick version of your favourite holiday season, go nuts. If you don’t manage or want to squeeze it in before the end of the year, read it whenever you can. Just make sure that you do read it.
Overall: If you’re not sure about NOS4R2 because you’re concerned about all the horror buzz around it, don’t worry. I may have read a few chapters from another book on occasion just to make sure that I wouldn’t end up with nightmares and the story is far from pleasant but it wasn’t terrifying and I have survived without any emotional scars making themselves apparent so far. NOS4R2 is one of the most creative, well plotted and well executed stories that I’ve read in a while. Get a copy, find a bright, sunny spot (easy in November, I know), forget about the page count and the fact that you’re waiting to have your socks scared off and just read it.
Date finished: 18 November 2014
Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Gollancz
Genre: Horror; Thriller
Pictured Edition Published: This more handily sized paperback was released on 09 October 2014 by Gollancz! Three cheers for handbag friendly chills!
Embarrassing side note: It took me a ludicrous amount of time even after the British renaming of NOS4R2 to get the title. I shudder to think how many times I must have said out loud N-O-S-4-R-2. When this book arrived, I tucked it away so that Boyfriend wouldn’t see it and chastise me for bringing another book into the house, only for it to emerge when we were catching the train to London for a long weekend away for his birthday. His first comment was “Please don’t read a book about vampires when you’re sat on the train next to me”. So apparently it’s obvious to some. Shame on me. (And don’t worry – I absolutely did read the book on the train while sat next to him and I haven’t just spoiled the novel for you!)