Around this time of year, festive book-readers everywhere are reading such heartwarming holiday classics as A Christmas Carol or The Gift of the Magi. But my perfect holiday read isn’t one of these, or even the newest Mary Higgins Clark Christmas mystery; the book I’ve been reading to ring in the season is NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. The cover features evergreen branches, a gingerbread man (albeit a broken, frowning one), a healthy dose of blood spatter, and the tagline, “Christmasland is Waiting for You…” What is Christmasland, you ask? Why, it is a magical land of eternal Christmas ruled over by an immortal, soul-sucking vampire and his army of malevolent child-vampires with sharp little fishing-hook teeth, of course!
Joe Hill’s epic novel centers around two characters: Vic McQueen and Charles “Talent” Manx. As a child, Vic discovers that her bicycle is a magical vehicle that can transport her over a special wooden bridge to the location of anything she is looking for. She uses the bike and bridge to help her find lost things – from neighborhood pets to her mother’s bracelet that was left at a restaurant. But one day, when she is having an adolescent melt-down and looking for trouble, her bike helps her find some big trouble – the “Sleigh House” of Charles “Talent” Manx. Manx is a Christmas-obsessed, vampiric creature who kidnaps children and feeds on their innocence and happiness. He has a magic vehicle of his own, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith (license plate: NOS4A2) that transports him to Christmasland, a world of eternal Christmas that he dreamed up for his legions of soulless children to inhabit. Young Vic has a terrifying brush with Manx at the Sleigh House and barely escapes being burned alive. Of course, no one believes her fantastic tale about Manx’s true nature, and after years of intense therapy and rehab for alcoholism, Vic has finally almost convinced herself that everything from her magic bike to Christmasland and Manx’s evil magic were figments of her imagination, made up as a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma of being “kidnapped”.
Now Vic is all grown up, has a son named Wayne, and is a well-respected children’s book author/illustrator. Things are going relatively well…until she starts getting phone calls from the children of Christmasland, taunting her. Then, when she fixes up an old motorcycle and takes it out for a spin to clear her head, her old wooden bridge appears before her – the bridge that Vic has worked hard to convince herself does not exist. Trying to deny what she is seeing, Vic turns around and heads home, only to discover that Manx, who had died in prison, is now inexplicably alive and has come to her home and abducted Wayne. Vic must give in to the horrifying reality she has always, deep down, known to be true and pursue Manx to save her son, before it’s too late. All of this leads to an epic final showdown in Christmasland between Manx, armed with a bone mallet and an army of malevolent undead children and Vic, armed with a mother’s love, a serious revenge kick, and a backpack of explosives.
So, basically, it’s your classic holiday tale of a bad-ass, emotionally-scarred biker chick facing off with an immortal, Christmas-obsessed vampire beneath the boughs of an evergreen forest with the souls of hundreds of children hanging in the balance.
I am obsessed with this book. Joe Hill’s imagination is unparalleled – the worlds and characters and twisted turns of plot he has dreamed up are nothing short of a monumental achievement. What most impressed me was his construction of his two main characters, Manx and Vic. They each have endless depth and nuance – they are so much more complex than good and evil. Vic is profoundly damaged – scarred by her childhood encounter with Manx and her dysfunctional parents. She struggles with alcoholism, fear that she is delusional and insane, and the conviction that her boyfriend and Wayne deserve better than her. Despite all this, she is creative, brave, and fiercely protective of her little family, no matter how fractured it is. However, Charles “Talent” Manx is truly the master achievement of Hill’s novel. He is so different from any villain I have read; Manx is jovial, somehow child-like in his love of Christmas, and strangely polite, even while threatening or taunting Vic – but at the same time, he is deeply violent and evil. His voice is so strong and idiosyncratic – in a twisted way, he is almost likable at times, but also horrifyingly malevolent and haunting. In the midst of her final showdown with Manx, Vic pauses to observe, “Whatever the children had become, whatever [Manx] had done to them, he had done to keep them safe, to keep them from being run down by the world. He believed in his own decency with all his heart. So it was with every true monster…” Manx and Vic are the kinds of characters that will stay with you for a long, long time.
The book features deliciously creepy spot illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez, the artist who illustrates Hill’s Locke & Key graphic novel series (and the graphic novel series Wraith, starring none other than Charles Manx). Plus, for readers who are also Stephen King fans, there are some wonderful little nuggets and references to the King-verse incorporated into the novel (as Hill is King’s son). But don’t read NOS4A2 because of the author’s famous father – Joe Hill is truly a brilliant, engaging, wickedly imaginative writer all on his own; he is one of the best contemporary writers of horror out there. Clocking in at a healthy 686 pages, NOS4A2 is perfect for a long holiday season of curling up by the fire with a cup of cocoa, avoiding relatives, and creeping yourself out. This is the “Christmas” tale for every action-junkie, horror-lover, and vampire fan on your list.