The growing trend in horror fiction these days seem to be the evolution of “The Big Bad.” Authors try to outdo each other with over-constructed monsters, demons and sundry psychopaths in a bid to grab the attention of readers nowadays left yawning at the mere mention of anything as trivial as a mere vampire or werewolf. Horror readers have become a bit like gamers, desensitized to fear and violence, no longer looking over their shoulders on dark streets and sleeping quite well with the lights off, thank you very much. It’s getting harder and harder to scare us, even harder to keep us interested.
Joe Hill aims to change that with NOS4A2, a nostalgic hat-tip to 80’s horror novels (many by his father Stephen King) which attempts to reboot a genre already awash with overused tropes and clichés.
The story focuses on Victoria McQueen, a teenager who discovers a strange portal while cycling through an old bridge, which brings her face-to-face with the aforementioned big bad, Charlie Manx a vampiric child-killer with a supernaturally-charged Rolls-Royce Wraith. Surviving the initial encounter and eventually marrying her rescuer, Vic struggles to cope with the experience as she grows into adulthood, but has to face her fears when she learns that Manx still lives, despite being declared dead in prison.
The initial chapters deal well with Vic’s character development, flawed as she is by the time Manx reappears we’re well invested in herself and her family, enough to be genuinely disturbed by his imminent return. Aided by his human “employee” and fellow psychopath Bing Partridge, Manx aims to recreate and return to his hellish lair, Christmasland. Vic is a tough character, but the type of Ripley-esque female protagonist that is becoming all too familiar in recent literature, Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls and Hugh Howey’s Wool being prime examples of where this has been done brilliantly. Hill delivers the goods with Vic however, her courage being fuelled by her hatred of Manx and the need to protect her family rather than any real sense of heroism.
Manx himself is quite the piece of work. Part Joker, part Pennywise, part Keith Richards, with essence of demented Willy Wonka, a grimly cheerful ghoul who inflicts his horror with fiendish glee. It’s this levity that often makes him so terrifying as he smiles and quips his way through one horrifying act after another, and despite the introduction of his disturbing backstory he is ultimately irredeemable.
There are times when you would be forgiven for thinking you are reading a Stephen King novel, especially if you’ve read the majority of his work. The style is very similar, albeit with a younger, slightly edgier tone. I read Dr. Sleep previously to this and found parts of it to be very similar structurally (there’s even a mention of that book’s Big Bad, the Third Knot.) Bing Partridge is very similar to The Stand’s Trashcan Man, The Wraith could easily be a reincarnation of Christine. It’s obvious that NOS4A2 is an homage to his father’s work and there’s nothing wrong with that. His work deserves it and there’s no-one more suitable to do so than Joe Hill.
Niggles aside, NOS4A2 is hugely entertaining, often disturbing but thankfully never gratuitous in its execution. Manx and Partridge’s unspeakable acts are largely left to the imagination and while parts may leave you with a feeling of deja vu it deserves to stand on its own as a strong addition to what is fast becoming a tired and diluted genre.