I'll go ahead and let you all in on a fact I was planning to keep secret: I did a lousy job of reading Joe Hill's new novel.
Don't be confused by what that means. I finished the book; I did the majority of my reading in three multi-hour chunks spread across four consecutive days off from work, and earlier tonight I completed page 692, closed the novel, nodded to myself at a goal accomplished, and that was that. I had a cat in my lap, so I sat there for a few more minutes, petting Duncan Idaho and refusing to let him bite my fingers. Then I got up and farted around on the Internet for a while; next thing you know, I'm writing this review. But yeah, I definitely finished the book.
So when I say that "I did a lousy job" reading this novel, don't think that that means I gave up on it or anything like that. Nope. Not the case. I read the entire thing.
It was a struggle, though.
And when I say "it was a struggle," what I mean is that it was so fucking good that I literally had trouble focusing on the words. I'd find myself getting in a groove where I'd get so wrapped up in what was happening that I was digesting entire pages in, like, ten seconds.
To shed some light on this, let me tell you a story. I had a dog once. Well...technically, he was my roommate's dog. Well, technically, he was my roommate's ex-girlfriend's dog. Doesn't matter. Let's just say he was my dog, because it makes the story flow better.
I had a dog once. And one night, me and my roommate cooked dinner. What'd we cook? Uh...I don't know...let's say it was country-fried steak and mashed potatoes and fried okra. Seems entirely possible. So anyways, we're eating, and the doorbell rings, and it was...well, I think it was a neighbor. Let's say it was. The neighbor had something to deliver, or something to tell us, or wanted some goddamn thing or another. Doesn't matter. Point is, both my roommate and I went to the door to speak with the neighbor, and at some point, it occurred to me to turn around and look and see what old Riley the dog was doing. I could see the dining-room table through the kitchen, and what I saw was Riley, standing in the middle of the table, snarfing up food like he had some inside knowledge that the planet was about to be pulled into a black hole, and wanted to eat as much as he possibly could before shit got all stretchy and weird.
Either my roommate or me screamed at him to stop, and we took off for the dining-room. As we approached, Riley actually accelerated his food intake. It was astonishing; it was like his stomach was the black hole, and the black hole had chosen to begin its conquest of the planet Earth with some country-fried steak, mashed potatoes, and fried okra. There's no way he was tasting anything, or actually enjoying it; this was simple, grim food annihilation.
Riley annihilated until we reached the table, and then he scampered down off the table and went and hid in the nearest corner, shivering in fear of the retribution that surely awaited. Shivering and scared, yes, but also licking his lips; scared to death, but with a foundation of immense self-satisfaction.
We thought it was the funniest fucking thing we'd ever seen.
Anyways, as I got further and further into NOS4A2, I found myself not so much reading the words as pulling them into myself at maximum speed, as if my brain was a black hole and it was dismantling the world one sentence at a time, starting with this Joe Hill hardback.
I was, technically speaking, reading the entire thing, but I occasionally began doing at such a fevered pitch that I'd realize I was getting very little actual use from the words. I knew what was happening, story-wise; but the style in which it was happening was, at times, largely lost on me.
That is hardly the first time such an experience has happened to me. It happens nearly any time I'm reading something that I am genuinely enjoying, especially if it is a first read of that book. Most recently, I caught myself flying through Double Feature by Joe's brother Owen King; when reading 11/22/63, I had to fight the problem back like I was defending fucking Helm's Deep. One tactic I have been known to employ in this fight is reading aloud; that forces me to slow down, and to take some actual taste from the words, rather than merely suck them up like I'm some sort of vacuum for prose.
I tried it with NOS4A2, and it would work for a bit, but inevitably, I'd find myself in black-hole territory again, devouring whole pages at breakneck pace. As a result, while I certainly enjoyed the novel, I canot honestly say that I feel like I gave it its due as a reader.
And maybe that's okay.
Because if you think I won't be reading NOS4A2 several more times before my time on Planet Earth is done, you are 100% mistaken. I figure half a dozen more, bare minimum; and that's not counting the audio version (which I really want, partially because it's read by Kate Mulgrew, one of my very favorite Star Trek captains).
Now, with that apology/explanation/praise dispensed, let's move on to the actual review. It won't be heavy on plot, because I don't want to spoil the novel's contents for anyone.
NOS4A2 has two main characters: Vic(toria) McQueen and Charlie Manx.
Vic is an eight-year-old girl whose parents are not exactly the happiest couple on Earth. They have been known to fight, sometimes literally, and when we meet them, they are arguing over a bracelet the wife has lost. The husband is being none too kind about it, and Vic, distressed by the whole scene, grabs her bicycle and goes riding off furiously. She heads for the Shorter Way Bridge, a covered bridge that is near her house; it is long, old, and decrepit, and she has been forbidden to enter it. But on this particular day, she enters it anyway, and when she emerges on the other side, she finds herself in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire; which is odd, considering that she lives in Haverhill, Massachusets. Nevertheless, there she is in Hampton Beach, near Terry's Primo Subs...which, as it turns out, is where her mother's lost bracelet is. She retrieves it, takes it home, and collapses, in a fever.
This will not be the last time Vic uses her bridge to find something that has been lost. Her bridge is an "inscape," a magical -- yet apparently real -- device that permits Vic to travel those impossible distances. (For more about the concept of the inscape, check out this Wikipedia page. Pretty cool stuff, and Joe Hill certainly puts the concept to some heady use in this novel.)
Our second lead character is the villain of the novel, Charlie Manx. Charlie is well over a hundred years old, and he is a sort of vampire. He isn't really a vampire; he doesn't drink blood, and has no trouble walking around in broad daylight. But he certainly feeds upon people. Specifically, upon children. Like Vic, Manx has an inscape: a Rolls-Royce Wraith, which magically transports him to a place called Christmasland, where it is Christmas all year round and nobody is ever unhappy. Especially not the children who end up there. No, they've never been happier; and they've got extra-large smiles to show it, complete with several rows of extra teeth.
How do the lives of Vic McQueen and Charlie Manx become intertwined?
You'll have to read the novel to find out. I'm not giving away any of the specifics in that regard. Suffice it to say that this is a horror novel, so bad things happen, sometimes to good people; and it is a fantasy novel, so things happen which make the world seem like a place full of way more potential than maybe we think it is when we open the novel for the first time. Some of that potential is for things to be really, really awful; but some of it is for things to maybe not be so awful all of the time.
What I'll say about the novel is that it is thoroughly entertaining. That's practically a given; this is Joe Hill, after all, and his previous books (20th Century Ghosts, Heart-Shaped Box, and Horns) have all been outstanding. This one is no different, except that it's longer.
What isn't a given is this: with NOS4A2, Joe Hill seems to have finally decided that if people want to compare his work with his dad's work, well, maybe that's totally alright. There are numerous things in the novel that will undoubtedly make the Constant Reader wink and nod and point a finger at the book and say (in a tone indicating recognition, delight, and mock chastisement) "...you!..." Hill doesn't go overboard with any of it; we're talking references on the level of having a family dog be a St. Bernard, but not going so far as to have the dog be menacing or rabid, or be named Cujo on account of the movie or anything dopey like that. Many readers won't get a lot of the references; and hell, I betcha I missed a few myself. It's not a distraction at all; more of an embracing of facts, Hill saying "Hey, I know some of you know who I am; and I know you've read my dad's books; well, so have I, and aren't they awesome?" Here, Hill is acknowledging and embracing his ancestry, and it is a delight.
Time was when he avoided doing that like the plague.
Famously, he began his career using the name "Joe Hill" (a shortening of his full name, Joseph Hillstrom King) because he did not want people to know that he was Stephen King's son. He was writing in the same field that his dad had literally helped to define since the mid-seventies (practically as long as Joe himself had been alive -- he was born in 1972, a mere two years before Carrie was published). It must have seemed like an impossible challenge to try to compete with him, or, worse, to look as if he were trying to cash in on his father's popularity.
I wouldn't envy anybody trying to get out from beneath that shadow.
Thing is, Hill is good enough that the shadow has grown increasingly less important. His first book of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, is as good as any of his dad's collections; and if you held a gun to my head and told me to pick which of all of them was the best, I'd pick 20th Century Ghosts (triumphing over Night Shift in a photo-finish). His first two novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, might not be as great as the best of his dad's novels, but for my money, they'd rank comparably against a lot of them, and I'd say they are better than at least a third of them; maybe more. Hill has the added wrinkle of being an accomplished writer of comic books, primarily the awesome dark fantasy series Locke & Key, which will be concluding later this year; his dad has dipped his toe into the pool of comics on occasion, but Hill is an expert swimmer in that pool, and has been for years now. Hill has yet to become a Hollywood player, but he's got a movie version of Horns on the way, and it stars Daniel Radcliffe; so while he lags way behind his father in cinematic terms, he's clearly going to make an impact there as time goes by.
All things considered, though, Hill was probably right to be scared of being perceived as trying to take advantage of his father's legacy. It was a good move on his part. His brother, Owen, writes more mainstream fiction; the comparisons to Stephen would be a lot trickier to make in Owen's case, and almost nobody would make them, hence the lack of a pseudonym. For Joe, though, writing horror and dark fantasy fiction put him squarely in the shadow of his father's accomplishments, and I can imagine that must be an intimidating place for any writer to be.
With NOS4A2, though, it has suddenly become clear that when we're looking at that shadow, we're not actually seeing a single shadow any more; we're seeing two shadows overlapping. Raising our eyes, shielding them against the sun, we see two men standing there: one of them tall, gangly, with glasses; the other a bit less tall, and quite a bit younger, but also with glasses, and an awesome beard to match it. Both are grinning like fools, and the younger one has his arm wrapped companionably around the older one's shoulders.
Joe Hill is every bit as good as Stephen King, folks. Whether Hill can ever match his father's enormous commercial success remains to be seen, but if it wasn't already abundantly clear that, artistically, Joe Hill is a proper chip off the ole block, NOS4A2 makes it evident in the same way it's evident that casting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man was a good idea. It's a no-brainer. But eminently worth celebrating, despite how evident it is; because really, what were the odds?
Speaking of King and Hill standing together, I am reminded of two variant covers for the Road Rage comics that adapted their short story "Throttle":
I was never able to get my hands on either of those variant-cover issues. Every time I've tried to find one, it's been over $20, and I just can't spend $20 on a single issue of a comic right now. I've gotta make them dollars stretch a bit further than that. Maybe one of these days, though, because those two are pretty effing glorious.
[UPDATE: After writing that paragraph, I decided to try to locate affordable copies of the two issues mentioned, and actually found the first for a measly $18. Still a bit more than I'd like to pay, but hey, you only live once. Ordered!]
Speaking of things I can't afford, there's this:
That's the Subterranean Press edition of the novel, which comes complete with presumably-awesome art by Locke & Key co-creator Gabriel Rodriguez. It also evidently includes a novella-length excerpt that was cut from the final draft of the novel.
And here's the worst part of me not being able to afford that book: I had a copy pre-ordered! Except my car died in December, and I had to cancel the pre-order because I needed the money to help with the down-payment on a new car. By the time I had money I could use on placing another pre-order, it was sold out.
I can live without the art, but not being able to read the novella-length deleted scene bums me out massively. Ah, well; maybe Hill will put it in one of his collections somewhere down the road.
While I'm posting pretty pictures, here's one of the British edition, which, you will note, has a slightly different title:
NOS4R2, because the British pronounce the word differently. Genius. And while I do not typically buy British editions of books, I think I'll be making an exception in this particular case.
So, anyways, to sum up: this is a pretty damn great novel. If you're a Joe Hill fan, you'd be crazy not to read it.
But if you're a Stephen King fan who hasn't yet felt the urge to dive into one of Hill's books, I'd suggest that this one would be a perfect place to start. In some ways it feels like something King himself would write. In others, it doesn't; but in some, it definitely does, and not only does Hill's work survive the comparison, it comes out the other end standing proudly alongside his dad's work, shoulder-to-shoulder.
And, yes, grinning.