Victoria McQueen has the ability to find lost objects by riding her bicycle on a covered bridge that no longer exists—a magical construct known as an inscape. A rebellious teen, Victoria uses her bridge to find trouble, and succeeds beyond her wildest nightmares when her power leads her to Charlie Manx, who kidnaps children and drives them in his evil Rolls-Royce Wraith to his own inscape, Christmasland, a magical theme park which promises an eternity of snowy fun…in exchange for their souls. Victoria just barely manages to escape Manx; afterward, her power lies fallow for years of troubled adulthood, until Manx targets her son.
That’s the setup for Joe Hill’s quirkily titled horror/dark fantasy novel, NOS4A2. The title, which is the license plate on Charlie Manx’s car, refers of course to Nosferatu, the titular vampire of the classic 1922 film—a film that Hill confesses that he never actually watched until he was halfway through the book. The title is just one of the many puzzles in the book, a sign that “things are not what they appear.”
One thing that is quite apparent is the care with which the hardcover is designed: beautifully embossed cover, deckle-edged pages, and—rare in an adult novel—illustrations, provided by Gabriel Rodriguez, the artist of Hill’s Eisner Award-winning comic book series Locke & Key. “We’re in a time when print sales are declining,” says Hill, “and the way to get around that is to make the book truly special, to make the book a thing of beauty; a pleasure to the eye, to the hand.” He admires two trends popular in 19th-century adult fiction that were abandoned in the 20th: illustrated fiction (“we know what Sherlock Holmes looks like because of the Paget illustrations,” Hill explains) and episodic fiction, a trope he honors in NOS4RA2 by ending some chapters in midsentence.
Critical and commercial acclaim for his novels, short stories, and comic books have allowed Hill to establish a strong literary identity apart from his writer parents (Hill’s brother Owen King published a novel in March, Double Feature). However, one can’t help but notice several references in NOS4RA2 to the work of his father, bestselling horror novelist Stephen King, including mentions of Derry, the Maine town where King has set several stories, and Pennywise, the sinister clown in IT. In fact, Hill says, you might even think of NOS4RA2 as a “rewrite of IT, in some ways.”
But Hill also pays more visible tribute to his mother, author Tabitha King, dedicating the book to her and featuring a strong maternal figure in the novel named Tabitha. “I have a close relationship with my mom, and we like a lot of the same things in story; we take the same approach to character,” Hill explains. “Aside from all that, what’s scarier than Manx or [his henchman] Bing is being a mother. Every day is a new opportunity to blow it. I wanted to write about these things: what a fraught, difficult thing it is to be a mom.…Fiction provides a safe playground for fear and concerns that normally [parents] don’t want to confront in everyday life. And most of them…[involve] our children.”
Of course, very few individuals are as fierce as parents fighting for their children, and Victoria uses all the weapons she has to hand, particularly her long-dormant power to enter her inscape. Sadly, that power comes with a price: terrible headaches and mental instability. Another character’s inscape allows her to divine the future with Scrabble tiles, but she pays for it by developing an increasingly debilitating stutter. “Every great gift tends to come with a darker side,” Hill says. “Our greatest inventions have unintended consequences that coil around to sting us.” That’s as true in real life as it is in fiction, he believes. “My dad sometimes says alcoholism is ‘American Novelist Disease.’”
Hill plans to continue to explore the terrifyingly beautiful, grotesque, and painful territory of inscapes, both in future novels and in a prequel comic book miniseries concerning Charlie Manx and his former assistant, Dewey. After all, Hill argues, inscapes are not all that fictional. “I really do think people live their life in two worlds,” he says. “People spend a portion of their lives in an inner life. Isn’t that what every artist does—bring their inner landscape out?”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix, and AudioFile.