For his horror novel Nos4R2, Joe Hill came up with a concept brilliant in its simplicity: the idea that very creative people can not just dream up imaginary worlds but create imaginary places, which Hill calls inscapes. Victoria McQueen, the book’s kickass heroine, can locate lost objects and teleport anywhere in the continental US by riding her bike onto an old bridge that will appear wherever she chooses. Of course, creativity isn’t reserved for the virtuous and Vic McQueen finds herself kidnapped by the book’s villain, Charles Talent Manx, who abducts children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith (the book’s title comes from Manx’s licence plate) and transports them forever to ‘Christmasland’ – a dark panorama where it’s always snowing and it is Christmas every day. Once there, the children turn into monsters, with teeth made of metal blades and an appetite for torture disguised as play.
With his interminable age, terrifying whimsy and hectic good cheer, Charlie Manx is a marvellously realised villain, a Willy Wonka from Hades. Just as most of us intuit early on that clowns are not funny, they’re just scary, we know in our hearts that a place where it is Christmas every day would be hell itself. Even Manx cannot kidnap dozens of children without help, though, and so he recruits a human familiar, the wretched, middle aged and abused fantasist Bing Partridge. To justify his abductions, Manx takes Partridge to a part of his inscape called the ‘Graveyard Of What Might Be’, a cemetery of children buried under an iced-over pond. As he explains: ‘The graveyard shows me children who will, if I do nothing, have their childhoods stolen by their mothers and fathers. They will be hit with chains, fed cat food, sold to perverts. Their souls will turn to ice, and they will become cold, unfeeling people, sure to destroy children themselves. We are their one chance, Bing!’ Bing does not need much convincing. He doesn’t care that ‘many of the mothers, when dosed with sevoflurane, would still not admit to their plans to whore their daughters or beat their sons and that several contended that they had never taken drugs, did not drink to excess, and did not have criminal records. Those things were in the future, a wretched future that he and Mr. Manx worked hard to prevent.’
All this is American grand guignol in the finest traditions of US horror. You can practically smell the oil off the yellowed 1940s pulp magazines. It’s just that, well, there’s not enough story here to justify 692 pages in hardback. Aspiring writers are often told that the worst mistake they can make is to fill their narrative with too many characters and too many ideas. Narrowing the cast of characters and working to a simple schema seems like a good way to keep focused and create a coherent story. But Hill has a huge canvas with too little to fill it and white spaces all over the map, so much like ‘[t]he emptiness that waited beyond Charlie Manx’s pinched little imaginings.’ The book does not back up its weight.
Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and he has learned a lot from his father, maybe too much. All King’s little habits and eccentricities are replicated in Nos4R2, the sparkles and flaw of his prose, and as a lifelong King fan I found the similarity uncanny. (An IPhone map of Charlie Manx’s bleak inscape lists a ‘Pennywise Circus’ near Bangor, Maine: a touching reference to the monster of King’s It, a book dedicated to Joe and King’s other children in 1985.) You kind of wish Hill would find his own voice. As against that, Hill has a bigger chunk of ice in his heart than King does and demands more sacrifice from his characters. Hill understands that good rarely wins without cost. His heroes in Nos4R2 triumph in their imaginations, but fail at life itself (the character of the stammering Scrabble addict Maggie Leigh is particularly affecting) and the story carries a powerful message, that there comes a point that we should put away childish things, that innocence sustained for too long becomes corruption. This is significant when you consider the recent investigations into children’s entertainers in the UK.
As I say, there is a good 300-page novel or novella waiting to be carved out of Nos4R2, but if you can get over the preposterous length, the book as it is constitutes a decent road trip. Just watch out for the Christmas music on the radio… and give the Pennywise Circus a wide berth.