“NOS4A2” is another one of the books I bought on sale at Barnes & Noble and put off reading for about a year (possibly longer) after buying it.
Unlike in the case of “Welcome to Night Vale,” when I did finally decide to read “NOS4A2,” I was able to get immediately into the book. Admittedly, I hadn’t read anything by Joe Hill before (though I did see the movie adaptation of “Horns”) so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect picking it up. Hill sets a good starting pace even from the prologue.
Time is not necessarily linear in the novel, and the section and chapter markers play a significant narrative role in making sure you know where you are and when you are. During a series of particularly tense scenes, you’re shown exactly where you’re going. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell a story the same way you’d show it in a movie–the movement that comes with, maybe, finding a hiding place in an unfamiliar house. Hill’s way to do this–leaving a sentence unfinished and then picking it up with the location in the title on the next page–was a really cool device, and I haven’t seen it used very frequently. Not only does it happen with physical spaces, but also dreamscapes, and it’s done with enough consistency that it doesn’t seem weird or out of place. In fact, even while I was on edge because I wanted to know what was going to happen next, I took a second to think, oh, this is a really cool thing.
In fact, as a general rule, “NOS4A2” is a pretty cool book. It plays around with time and space, but its characters are memorable and strong. The protagonist, Vic McQueen, is introduced as a kid, and Hill knows how to write girls. She makes sense–even when she doesn’t even think she does. Even though none of the “good guys” are perfect (their flaws are important and make the plot keep moving forward), I found that I was mostly willing to forgive them for whatever wrongs they had done. Vic McQueen especially makes some really bad decisions (this is an understatement), but in the end, she’s a hero.
The villains are awful men. There are no justifications for what they do, and the narrative–a mostly limited third person, taking the perspective of whichever character is the focus of a particular section–does not try to make excuses for them, even when it shares their excuses for themselves. There is, of course, the main villain: Charlie Manx, a man whose own soul has withered to the point where he has to rely on those of kidnapped children to stay alive (he’s a vampire in that way–hence, “NOS4A2,” or, “nosferatu”), but his partner is, in my opinion, more frightening, if only because Bing Partridge is, technically, still human, and the kind of atrocities he commits are ones that you could imagine an actual person committing if you’ve read anything or watched anything about serial killers. You have the kind of monster that anyone could be afraid, the kind that can create his own world and steal people away into it like the boogeyman, and you also have a representation of the real world monsters.
(To that, I do have to mention that if you plan on picking up “NOS4A2,” you should be aware that there is a significant amount of violence against women, and that there is rape–though the act itself described not as it happens but as a fantasy or a thing that has happened.)
I don’t have many complaints about the book, and I struggle to name a place where I felt that it wasn’t up to par with the rest of it. If anything, maybe Joe Hill uses the word “grotesque” more than any other adjective, and there are some descriptors that are kind of weird–a “squirt” stuck out as a weird way to phrase someone’s foot sliding–but besides that, it’s a great horror novel. I was worried and compelled to keep reading to find out what happened. On the one hand, I’m not happy about the way it ended, but on the other, it’s a good ending in a few different senses of the word, and I’m not sure it could have conceivably ended any other way.