Joe Hill, also known as Joe Hillstrom King, also known as Stephen King’s son wrote a book called The Fireman and I loved it. I really got into it and felt strongly connected to the characters, the surroundings and the world it was set in. As we all should, whenever you are impressed by a book or an album or a game, I decided I had to check out more of the creators work and that is where NOS4R2 comes in.
NOS4R2 was released in 2013, 3 years before The Fireman, and is the third full length novel by Joe Hill. Outside of the UK it was called NOS4A2 though I have no idea why the name wouldn’t have remained the same here. So, to the story, which is actually quite a simple idea on the face of it. We have a bad guy who drives a flash car and goes around capturing little kids to take them off to Christmas Land. One day he captures a kid who gets away and, now she is all grown up and has a son of her own, the bad guy takes her son in an act of revenge and the once abducted mother tries to find and save him. As it so often is, the devil is in the detail though.
The story actually takes place over multiple decades but starts us off in 2008 where we learn of a horrid sounding character by the name of Charles Manx. Charles Manx is described vividly as being very old, decrepit even, but also as a convicted child abductor. Manx is in a hospital, in a coma, and described as being on his last legs and having limited brain function when suddenly he tries to grab hold of a nurse and threatens here. He returns to his coma leaving the nurse looking like a liar to her coworkers. The man can barely keep breathing – how could he possibly have reached out for anyone? With that though we leave Charles Manx behind, for now, and travel all the way back to 1986 where we meet a little girl called Vic McQueen. Vic, as a youngster, is a little rebellious. She has issues with both her mum and dad thinking her dad to be overly aggressive, maybe even abusive, and her mum to be a coward and irritating. She escapes these home pressures by going out riding on her bike, an old Raleigh Tuff Burner, that she adores. It is while out riding that she comes across an old, covered bridge which she travels across and finds herself hundreds of miles from home and right beside an item that her mother had lost. She picks it up, travels back, and returns the item to her mother. Vic, with her bike, has found a way to travel the paths between, unseen roads and walkways and bridges that connect the world but can only be accessed by a small few.
These roads are well known to fans of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. In fact a huge portion of Wolves of the Calla are dedicated to Father Don Callaghan’s story that took place after the events of Salem’s Lot and involve him finding a pathway that he walked and found himself in different places and eventually in the Calla meeting the last of the line of Eld. Having little nods in this story that tie in quite nicely to The Dark Tower is great for me, being a big fan of that epic tale. In fact, there are quite a few nods to Stephen King works here with nods to The Stand, Doctor Sleep and Salem’s Lot.
So Vic continues to traverse time and place using her bridge until one day, when by her own admission she goes out riding to look for trouble, she happens across Charles Manx and finds the trouble she was seeking and her life changes for ever though so does Manx’. She barely escapes him and ends up at a petrol station thanks to a helpful passer by, Lou Carmody, who calls the police. Shortly after, by coincidence, Manx also stops at the same station to get fuel and a fight ensues where some helpful people try to restrain him, Manx sets fire to one of them, killing him in front of his wife and child, and then the police show up and take him down which is how he ends up in the prison/hospital we started at.
We learn a bit more about Manx as well. We learn about how he believes he is saving children from unhappiness by taking them away from their miserable families, killing their parents with the help of his creepy assistant Bing, and then keeping the kids in his own world, Christmas Land. We also learn that Manx uses the same hidden highways to get around but, with the help of his car, has also found a way to transport himself and his children to a place that exists where only his mind can reach. He has done so for a long time and the children he keeps are changed having had all humanity sucked out of them, they are psychotic, emotionless and dangerous. Described as being gaunt, scarred and having pin sharp teeth, the once normal young children are every bit as monstrous now as the man who took them. To some degree, Manx is a vampire, though instead of feeding on blood, he feeds on the innocence and humanity of the children he takes. His assistant, Bing, helps to collect the children but mainly deals with the parents. Using a gas he procures from the chemical plant where he works, he releases it into the air to knock out the families. He does this while wearing a gas mask to add to the creepy image we have of him. He and Manx take the children and then Bing takes the parents to his basement where he performs despicable acts on them until disposing of their bodies. Bing is both sick, and creepy, but actually has a childlike mind and just wants to go to Christmas Land too. He will do anything to gain favour with Manx, and does, and he kind of reminds me of Trashcan Man from The Stand in his warped innocence. It is the childlike thoughts mixed with deplorable acts that make him quite terrifying as a character.
Back to the future then and we see an older Vic who, despite surviving Manx, has really not fared well at all. She is in a relationship, of sorts, with Lou Carmody now and they have a son together who is called Bruce Wayne (Lou is a comic book nerd) but Vic, scarred from her past and still haunted by it struggles to deal with everyday life. She has managed to write a few children’s books and is relatively successful in that regard but is completely estranged from her mother and father, drinks too much and takes too many things to help her stay breathing and help her to sleep. She also gets phone calls from Christmas Land, from the creepy children who want their “father” back. These phone calls drive her crazy as she cannot figure out if they are real or in her mind, she breaks down completely and splits from Lou and her son though Lou is a really great guy and loves her dearly so it is more than amicable.
Vic eventually sorts her head out and leaves the past behind her, convincing herself it was in her mind until she finds an old Triumph, goes riding and accidentally comes across the bridge again. As it dawns on her that it was all real, Manx, Bing and The Wraith also return to her life. In the fight that ensues, Manx gets his revenge by capturing Vic’s son. He failed to get Vic to Christmas Land and is determined to take Bruce there, partly for revenge, but also as he genuinely believes Vic has wronged him and Bruce would be safer without her. The police and FBI turn up and hold Vic in custody. Nobody believes her story about Manx. As far as they are concerned he is long dead having passed away not too long after being in a coma. Vic escapes custody and, with the help of Lou and her father, she takes the fight to Manx, his family of monsters and to Christmas Land. She may not survive but she is determined to ensure her son will, and she needs to act quickly, as he is starting to change to.
You will have to read the book to find out what happens and it is well worth it. It is a very long book and while I enjoyed it wholly, it isn’t always paced particularly well with large sections describing small events and then quite a lot of action happening in a very short few chapters nearer the end. Despite the pacing feeling off, it never really detracted from the story for me and I quite like lots of details. It builds the characters even more and helps to form a strong connection. Really, the characters in this book are great and they are every well developed. We essentially grow up with Vic and I like that our want to be heroine is so very flawed. It gives a sense of realism really. Manx is a great character too and Joe does a great job of making him frightening while also, weirdly, humorous at times. Bing, well Bing is just on another level completely managing to be a grown up child with no conscience and even Lou as a secondary character, is developed well enough for you to care about him. So lots of development which is a good thing but obviously this takes time and pages which may be a turn off for some people. If you like Stephen King books, and how he connects them all with little nods to other works, you will also enjoy hunting through this story and picking out the nods to other areas. At it’s heart, NOS4R2 is an old school horror novel with solid characters and an interesting story. Creepy old men capturing children and sucking their souls out is pretty horrific right?
A very good story, told well, that could probably have benefitted from maybe being 50 pages shorter but that is a minor complaint though really as there is a whole lot of good on offer here. Good characters with flawed good guys and messed up bad guys in a battle where the lives of children are at stake. It offers plenty of horror with Manx and Bing being exactly the people you warn your children about and a little sprinkle of fantasy too with hidden paths and highways and, of course, Christmas Land, the place of every child’s dreams (and nightmares). Joe Hill is a very talented author, as maybe he should be, he has the right genes after all. I would definitely recommend NOS4R2 though perhaps wait until after Christmas to read it? It may put you off the holiday season. You definitely might think twice if a group of children arrive at your door singing carols.
NOS4R2 (Joe Hill)