When Joe Hill emerged onto the scene in 2005 with the fantastic short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, he seemed reluctant to mention his famous father. And who could blame him. When you write horror stories and your dad is Stephen King, you’re likely to come up against some pretty unfair comparisons. Unfortunately for Hill, readers only needed to look at the author photo in the back of 20th Century Ghosts to see the family resemblance. That startling debut collection was followed by the novels Heart-Shaped Box and Horns. Both are very good reads, but with NOS4A2 Hill seems to have taken a giant leap forward. And I think I know why.
With this latest work, it seems that Hill has finally fully accepted that people see him as Stephen King’s son. He’s decided to embrace it. As well as referencing The Shining, It, and Doctor Sleep in the book, N0S4A2 also represents the first occasion on which Hill has written a novel that feels like it could belong in the universe that his father has spent decades creating. It’s reminiscent of Salem’s Lot, ‘Children of the Corn’, Christine and From a Buick 8 (although it’s much better than the last two mentioned.) It also has the same thing at heart as nearly every King novel does: the family unit, and its power to overcome evil.
The novel begins with a young Vic McQueen as she slowly discovers a secret power. She has the ability to conjure up a bridge that can take her to anywhere she thinks of, as long as she is going there to retrieve something that’s been lost. At the same time, we are slowly introduced to the mysterious Charlie Manx. Manx is taking children from the real world, and turning them into something else in a place called Christmasland. He drives around in The Wraith, his powerful and eerie Rolls Royce, listening to Christmas songs and promising to save children from their parents. He’ll keep them forever young, but maybe not in the way they’d hope.
Vic McQueen becomes the first child ever to escape Charlie Manx, and when she does so, he’s taken away from all of his children. McQueen spends the rest of the novel haunted by the children of Christmasland, but it is only when Manx re-emerges, and tries to take Vic’s son Wayne, that the real action of the novel begins.
But that isn’t to say that what comes before is in any way dull. In fact, like many of his father’s recent novels, you might say that the best part of Hill’s latest work is the build-up. The characterisation is incredible, as is the establishment of the essential relationships. And, for at least the first 400 pages, Charlie Manx is a bad guy who could almost live with Pennywise the Clown. The book maybe falters slightly in the final third, as Manx goes from creepy to kind of comical, but by then the hook is in you and you’ll need to know where it’s going to take you. After a slightly underwhelming climax, then, the book returns to form in the epilogue. The creepiness returns, and a wonderful final scene shows the devastation Manx has left behind.
Any Cop?: There are thousands of writers out there who would kill to be compared to Stephen King, so Hill should see that as nothing but a compliment. N0S4A2 causes chills that many contemporaries couldn’t dream of, even if they do dissipate towards the end. The main characters are relatable and likable, and their relationships are what will keep you going to the end. And in Manx, there’s a baddy good enough to suggest that Hill is every bit as able to conjure evil as his dad. Close to being a truly great horror novel, and a sign that Hill will continue to get better and better.