I made a new friend on Twitter. Jessica from Seattle (that’s her official title, you have to say the whole thing like “the Duke of Blahblah” or “the Baroness of Suchandsuch”). We ran across each other in a comment thread on Amanda Palmer’s feed. Totally random. But since then we’ve figured out that we might be part of a secret government experiment wherein we each have one half of some sort of hotwired long-distance superbrain. We weren’t supposed to find out about each other because together, with all that combined awesome, things might get explodey.
Or maybe we just have a lot in common.
Either way: take that, evil overlords! Try to control my superbrain, will ya? I’ll show you.
So, Jessica from Seattle and I were chitter chattering about books, because clearly I can’t help myself. I always bring it back to books. Turns out we were both stoked about the new Joe Hill novel and we decided to read it together. I haven’t read a book with anyone else on purpose since college, so it seemed like a fun new experiment. Like a book club, but with someone I’ve never met and without all that pesky having to sit in a room with other people. This way I didn’t even have to put on pants. It was fantastic.
I’m kidding. I was actually wearing pants.
Or was I?
Point is, I was a little nervous. I didn’t want my expectation of the discussion to change the way I read the book. This happened to me pretty often in college, when I had to take notes not only on what I thought was interesting but also on all the boring shit the professor might bring up in lecture. The other thing is that I read really fucking fast. I follow everything that’s going on and still get totally sucked into the story and all that, but unless it’s something mind-blowing I tend to forget about it fairly quickly. As soon as I’m on to the next book, the last one is mostly gone. This can cause problems with talking about things I read even just a couple of weeks ago. So I was nervous, but whatever. The thought of buying a brand-new hardcover outweighed my trepidation. Because I get to do that so rarely. When you read five books a week, you have to go cheap, you know? I once did the math and if I read nothing but new books my habit could conceivably become more expensive than heroin. Jessica from Seattle lives in a normal human environment and got hers from the library. Lucky bitch. Mrrrr.
So, yeah. The new Joe Hill, NOS4A2, is pretty fucking brilliant. On a lot of levels. I initially described it as Christine meets The Thief of Always, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s kind of hard to summarize, but I’ll give it a go. There’s a little girl, Vic, who finds lost things by riding her bike through a phantom covered bridge, which somehow spits her out exactly where the thing she’s looking for has ended up (already I can see this rundown will be difficult – just follow me). We watch her struggle through some nasty broken home shit and eventually become a rebellious teenager. One day she gets pissed off and goes out on her bike to “look for trouble” and her bridge plonks her down at the home of a serial killer and alleged kiddie fiddler. Who is actually a soul-sucker of some sort. (You get that Nosferatu reference now, don’t you? No? Look again. Give it a second. There you go.) Telling you that she gets away is not a spoiler. She gets away, in a pretty spectacular way, then helps capture the creepy, creepy guy and ends up dating the dude who rescued her. She has a baby, loses her shit, gets institutionalized, and we hook back up with her much later in life. The killer, Charlie Manx, has died. Urm, sort of. He died, then his body disappeared, and the cops think that it was one of those ghoulish serial killer groupies stealing the body. But it wasn’t. So now he’s after Vic and her son but no one will believe her because she has a history of severe mental illness (which isn’t really just mental illness, but when you tell people that you had a pet magical bridge that could fold time and space, it tends to not come across as quite sane). And also because the guy just died. Here’s where it gets weird (I know, right?): Charlie Manx isn’t technically a serial killer. He doesn’t murder the kids he kidnaps. He takes them to another dimension, to a place that’s built out of his fantasies and that he can control with his mind, and feeds off their energy (Hill calls this world an Inscape, a term I think is really great and that we should use more widely). To do this Manx uses a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith which is also, somehow, a psychic extension of himself – and probably the most sinister-looking car ever produced by mankind. But the kids don’t die. They live forever and stay young in this twisted little universe of his where – get this creepy crawly shit – every day is Christmas. That’s right. Fucking Christmas. Toys and snow and all that horrible happy slappy music. Yeah, it’s completely fucked up. Even more so because the former kids turn into tiny Manxes, sort of, forgetting the difference between right and wrong now that all they have by way of personality is an insatiable hunger for fun. And apparently stabbing things is fun. Oh, god, it’s all just really…icky.
And all of that? That’s only about the first third of the book. So. Much. Awesome. I took lots of notes. But after chatting for about three hours with Jessica from Seattle, I think I whittled all that lit major shit down to two main things that I really loved: horror that utilizes children (and the kid/parent connection, which is important here), and the idea of Inscapes. And I am aware that that first thing sounds really horrible of me, so let’s start there.
Why are kids so scary? I think there are two sides to this coin, and they both play a big part in NOS4A2: kids as heroes and kids as villains. Kids as heroes, or even as characters on the hero’s side, in horror (or scifi or fantasy, anything with mortal peril) are more terrifying because they’re supposedly more vulnerable. You just don’t want to see them get their little heads smashed, right? But kids have vulnerability on their side, really. They have innocence and the weird logic that comes along with it. Put simply, they don’t think like we do. They can see connections and think around corners in ways that would never even occur to grownups. And that’s badass. Hang out with a bunch of little kids for a while and try to look at the world the way they do. Worth your time. Also, and maybe I should say “unfortunately,” the bad guys often underestimate kids. Which gives the kids the upper hand, if they figure out how to use it to their advantage. I love it when that happens. As a person who started reading adult fiction when I was very young, I think I got a soft spot for these characters early and kept it. I identified with them when I was a child, and kept rooting for them even when I was old enough that the kid winning should’ve been a surprise twist ending.
On the flip side, when children are the bad guys, it’s exactly these same qualities that make them particularly horrifying. Their lack of innocence or lack of vulnerability, especially if they turn violent, seems alien somehow, and makes us instinctively recoil. Like with snakes. Or spiders. Or unicycles. But they know how we should feel about them, all protective and lovey, and can use it against the good guy or the reader. Sneaky wee bastards. Again with that logic, that strange and incomplete worldview. Although, when they’re not the outright bad guys, not serial killers or anything and they’re just being creepy, it crawls all over me. Why does it get under my skin so badly? Little kid ghosts or demons or zombies? Ugh, it’s the worst.
It’s probably those girls from The Shining. Yeah, let’s go ahead and blame them. In their weird little dresses. Yuck. Freaks me out. Watch that movie again. They’re not twins. Nevertheless, to this day I have a deep and abiding fear of identical twins. Thanks, Stanley Kubrick. Thanks a heap.
Moving on. Inscapes. I love this concept. And it feels familiar, comfortable but not derivative. I can’t put my finger on anything that’s exactly like it, but it’s close enough to some stuff that I feel like I know my way around at least a little bit. I think this might go back to the thing about kids. How powerful their imaginations are, and how real those things can seem. Where’s the line between that and delusion? What if that imaginary world or those imaginary friends were real? How could we tell? At what point would we send our kids to therapy? To the mental hospital? Pump them full of chemicals and pat them on the head and say “No, honey, there’s no such thing as ghosts.” We don’t know. We could be wrong. Madness and imagination, man, that’s a fine, fine line. But they’re both powerful. The idea that a mind, especially a sick one, could create a whole private world or universe that intrudes into our own? You can go anywhere with that idea.
And like I said, it doesn’t feel exactly new. But I like what Hill’s done here. The level of detail is intricate and the worldbuilding is airtight. The characters’ crossing back and forth and cutting in and out comes with a price. There’s a tradeoff. Manx needs to suck the souls from children using his car or he’ll wither and die. Vic can skip across great distances using her bridge but at the risk of losing more pieces of her mind. There’s another character who can see the future by spelling out words with Scrabble tiles, because she’s a word nerd and an obsessive, but her price is a stammer that gets progressively worse until she can barely speak at all. I also like that each person with this type of ability needs a tool, which is such an expression of their personality that it becomes a physical manifestation of their mind and can manipulate the universe. These two things, the tools and the tradeoffs, create a balance which is really quite a tidy plot device. It evens out what could’ve been an oversimplified superhero versus supervillain story. That’s good stuff.
Makes me wonder what my tool would be. Probably a pen. Not a fancy one. Just one of those cheap, clear, Bic ballpoints. I love those. And then I could draw doors and go through them. Like the Roadrunner. It’d be great.
Anyway. If you’re a horror fan, or even a fan of great worldbuilding (who doesn’t mind a little bloody murder here and there), go check out NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. It will not disappoint. Promise. And maybe find a reading buddy, because that was super fun. And, honestly, unexpectedly helpful for blog writing. Thanks, Jessica from Seattle. We should do it again sometime. Maybe we could get a whole bunch of people to read something together.
Blog readers? You down?
I swear, I’m not rubbing my hands together and cackling an evil book club cackle. Probably.