Deathly Innocence: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Books in a shelf
Books in a shelf

Since childhood, Vic McQueen has had an uncanny talent for finding lost things. Fueled by desperation to salve the rupture in her parents' marriage, Vic discovers the Shorter Way Bridge, a dangerous supernatural pathway that takes her to wherever a lost object can be found. Yet even while she becomes proficient at retrieving lost objects, as Vic grows into young adulthood she herself becomes lost when her parents' marriage disintegrates.

Meanwhile across the country, children are disappearing, the work of Charles Talent Manx, who claims he is bringing them to his utopian paradise of Christmasland. No bodies have ever been found, but dark rumours haunt Manx's lair, the ambiguously named Sleigh House. In an early showdown, Vic aids in the capture of Manx by police, ensuring he is secured behind bars. And that's when her real problems begin.

Named for the license plate on Manx's murderously sentient Rolls Royce, NOS4A2 is Joe Hill's homage to traditional horror after two novels that did not adhere as clearly to genre conventions. As in his previous novels -- Heart-Shaped Box, Horns -- Hill here creates a cast of quirky, flawed, three-dimensional characters, with the tough anti-heroine Vic emerging incontrovertibly as the narrative lynchpin.

In finding Christmasland and the children spirited there, Vic may ultimately rediscover her own lost self.

One of the standout qualities of Hill's work is his ear for the rhythms of language, the creative metaphors that surprise and satisfy. His sentences crackle with wit and understated craftsmanship -- the kind so skillful it is only visible if you're paying attention. It is through language that Hill weaves the subtly disturbing atmosphere that permeates NOS4A2 even in its least threatening moments, such as in a description of a diner: "[She] didn't like looking at the flypaper, at the insects that had been caught in it, to struggle and die while people shoved hamburgers into their mouths directly below." Not long before, Hill describes the laughter of a group of girls as being "like hearing glass shatter."

The mood set by the language and a series of horrifying events is one of dread, that staple of the horror genre. However, while Manx and his Rolls Royce are scary, his henchman Bing Partridge brings the most vivid horrors. Bing is the quintessential minion to the archvillain --childlike, obedient, none too bright. But in his alter ego as the Gasmask Man, Bing gasses women (and at least one man) into days of sexual debasement and torture before finally ending their lives -- an echo of his earlier murder of his parents. Bing's murders are in the service of Manx, disposing of the mothers of Manx's kidnapping victims.

In its almost comic distortion of Christmas into something monstrous, NOS4A2 is about the dangers of idealizing childhood innocence. Manx is an archvillain who displays a dainty disgust for profanity and women's sexuality. Bing is reminiscent of an overgrown child, with the lack of empathy that can underlie children's cruelty. In their continuous remarks about the sexual depravity of women and the imperative to protect children's innocence and Christmas, Manx and Bing are caricature champions of "traditional" values.

It is only natural, in that case, that their antagonist is Vic McQueen: a copiously-tattooed biker who had a baby out of wedlock. Vic is moreover that figure perhaps most demonized in our culture, the "bad mother." Savagely ambivalent about the demands of parenthood, restless to get back on her motorcycle, Vic is in all ways the traditionalist nightmare. Not coincidentally, she is assisted in her supernatural journey by a clever, profanity-spewing lesbian librarian.

The theme of Vic's life is that she is always searching -- whether it is for items lost, or her own peace of mind. Her series of illustrated children's books is, not surprisingly, called Search Engine. This is in contrast to the traditionalist villains, who are certain they have all the answers. Implicit also is the idea that innocence is not necessarily a virtue, that the sterling qualities that last into adulthood are of greater value. Or as one character notes, early on, "What's good stays good no matter how much of a beating it takes."

This review originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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