A couple of weeks ago, Moon Man and I went to the bookstore. From a budgetary perspective, this is almost always a mistake, but we do it anyway because we’re reckless like that and we like to live dangerously. I had a few titles in mind that I wanted to pick up, but Moon Man is more of a “browse and select as you go” sort of person; so I nabbed the books I was after, then hunted him down and found him holding a copy of NOS4A2 and debating whether to get it.
He held onto it for a moment, then set it down, then picked it back up and looked at it some more, then set it back down, and finally I said “Ok, look. I have heard of that book and am interested in that book, and while that book is not on my shopping list for today, if you don’t buy it, I totally will. Because I want to read that book, whether it was next on my list or not”.
And so we got the book.
And then we got home, and I finished the book I was working on at the moment and wandered into the bedroom to survey the stack of new books and decide which one to read next, and in what I’m officially calling “generosity” (y’know, because I read more than Moon Man does so I’d finish it sooner and he could take his time with it) but which was probably more like juvenile envy (“I didn’t want pizza until my friend said they’re having pizza, and now all I want in the world is pizza”) I picked it up and decided to give it a test-drive.
…And then I blinked, and it was 700 pages later, and I wondered vaguely what day it was.
Let me get this out of the way right now: NOS4A2 is not a fun book. It is not a delightful book, or a highly enjoyable book. It is the story of Charles Manx, who kidnaps (he’d say “rescues”) children and takes them off to Christmasland where they never get old, never feel hungry, never feel lonely, can have all the hot cocoa they want, and play all day long–super-fun games like “Scissors for the Drifter” and “Bite the Smallest”, that latter being particularly “fun” because of the extra rows of fishhook teeth they tend to grow. Whee, Christmasland!
It is also the story of Victoria McQueen, who discovers as a child that if she holds certain thoughts in her mind as she rides her bicycle, she can summon the “Shorter Way” bridge, across which is…well, whatever she needs it to be. A lost bracelet. A missing cat. Or on the day she sets out to find some sort of trouble to get into, Charles Manx.
Everything I can tell you from there on out is a spoiler, so I’ll just leave it to you to go find a copy and give it a read (with the lights on, preferably nowhere near Christmastime. Pro tip.). But for the curious, here’s my two cents on the thing:
Penny #1: Man was that good. I devoured the book, emerging only for things like eating and sleeping and not completely ignoring my husband for days at a stretch (though he’s a very nice man, and would totally have understood). I carried it around with me, snuck in 5-minute reading breaks between meetings, and was generally utterly consumed by it. It’s a good, good book.
Centavo #2: However, it really could’ve stood a little tightening up. Generally speaking it was fine–decent pace, good story arc, etc–but there were several moments when I found myself making the “c’mon, c’mon, get a move on” motion in my mind. Mostly these were in places where several characters were acting simultaneously but independently, and the narrative was tracking them all; while I officially appreciate a “when in doubt, spend more time on character-building” approach, there’s a certain finesse you have to use with it. So for instance, if there is a child in your scene being menaced by the boogieman and he is trying to call for help, and you establish all those facts through the POV of a second character, when you switch back to focusing on the POV of the child it’s probably ok to assume the audience has sorted out that he’s feeling afraid. It’s not entirely necessary to spend three pages establishing that yes, the kid is right where the other scene said he was, and yes, the kid has the phone you already know he has, and yes, the kid is feeling just as afraid as his reactions to the other character would imply. We got it. Kid’s spooked. Forge ahead.
But really, that’s the only complaint I’ve got–that sometimes it felt like Hill could’ve spent a little less time making sure we were completely submerged in the moment. Which is absolutely not the worst sin a writer can commit, not by a long shot.
Well, ok, I also felt that the climax was a little shaky. But there again, it would just be a matter of tightening up a few nuts and bolts–no major overhaul or anything, just a little bit of…well, trimming. Or sprucing. Or tightening. Or any other Christmas, blade, or cycle-related verb you want to use. (Yeesh.)
One other note before I start the wrap-up: Joe Hill is clever, and I loved him for it. You’ll find yourself periodically wearing a wry little grin as you spot a reference to other novels, bits of poetry, etc; for instance, at one point he’s describing a burnt-out church and notes that “Nothing beside remained. A sun-faded parking lot, boundless and bare, stretched away, lone and level, as far as she could see”, and I spent a few seconds hoping beyond hope that someone–anyone–would arrive to demand that you “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”. (Spoiler alert: no one does. Ptoo.). So while it can be a real risk to overload your work with obscure references and literary in-jokes, I think Hill actually does a great job of sprinkling in just enough to make you feel triumphant when you spot them–but not so many, or so blatantly, as to make you feel left out if you haven’t read everything he has.
TL;DR: NOS4A2 is the delightfully creepy sort of novel that makes you trust your fellow man just a little bit less. It will also leave you slightly PTSD about Christmas, so I recommend steering clear of it from, oh, say, November 1 through January 31. Otherwise, settle in with it for a satisfyingly hefty, unsettling trip through what is real, what is imagined, and what exists in the shadow lands outside our experience.
Rating: 7.75/10 Muddy Hoofprints. This book was good, don’t get me wrong, and I absolutely enjoyed it. But it wasn’t terribly revolutionary, and really wanted someone to come through with a pair of scissors and say “I love you and respect your work, but you don’t get to have all of these pages. Some of them have to go. Sorry, man”. So come for the hinks and the chance to find “Jingle Bells” unsettling, stay for the creepiness and the fun of playing spot-the-reference, but don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on this being the Greatest Piece of Horror Ever Written. (But give Hill some time–I like the way this guy thinks, and am optimistic to see what happens to his style as he ages.)