Some spoilers (sorry!)
If any of you are unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter then you’ll know how desperate I have been to get my hands on a copy of NOS4R2 by Joe Hill. I was feeling pretty bleak about the whole situation, really. I felt as though I NEEDED a copy in my life but my finances prevented me from making that happen.
Nervously anticipating the last pay cheque from my last job, I was very happy to find that I could indeed afford to lay my greedy little hands on said tome, as Mr Taxman had generously given me a rebate. Success!
So that morning, I trotted down to Waterstones in Swansea to make the purchase, feeling a little like Dick Whittington probably did when he discovered the streets were paved with gold (tenuous metaphor, I know…), to discover that there were only 2 copies left.
Did I seal the deal? You betcha ass I did. And now I am going to talk about that experience at length.
Vic McQueen is a girl who knows how to find things. With her trusty Raleigh Tuff Burner she is able to bridge the gap between lost and found, quite literally, with the aid of the Shorter Way Bridge. When she needs to find something (whether that be her mother’s lost bracelet or a priceless photograph) she hops on her bike and the Shorter Way Bridge takes Vic where she needs to go, even if that place is hundreds of miles away.
Vic doesn’t know if these trips are real or not and over time, finds herself rationalising these experiences with simpler, and quite frankly, saner explanations.
Crossing the Shorter Way Bridge doesn’t come without a price. When Vic returns from her adventures, she often experiences excruciating stabbing pains in her left eye, headaches and delirious bouts of fever which often lasts for days.
Feeling alone and seeking answers, Vic crosses the bridge to Here, Iowa and meets an eccentric woman who, through use of Scrabble tiles, divines that Vic will cross paths with a mysterious and terrifying stranger; a one Charles Talent Manx and his terrible 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith (though we find out his name later; remember that in Scrabble spelling names is against the rules…).
Over time, Vic uses the bridge less and less, attributing each crossing merely as a fantastical illusion through which she can escape her unhappy home life.
Then, age 17, angry and seeking trouble, Vic crosses the Shorter Way Bridge and discovers it waiting for her at the other end. Trouble that drives a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith; a certain someone who steals children from their lives, their parents and their humanity and takes them to Christmasland…a place where unhappy children can be happy…forever.
Only one child has escaped the clutches of Charlie Manx, and that is one Victoria McQueen, teen hell-raiser. But Charlie Manx does not forgive and he does not forget…
I found Vic McQueen to be a character that I could relate to on a couple of levels. I could empathise with her desire to escape her dysfunctional home life. We often escape into own worlds (or ‘inscapes’ as they are known in the book) to avoid tense situations or undesirable circumstances. Secondly, I could (and can) relate to the fact that Vic, for the longest time, doesn’t know who she is or what she wants to do.
Her whole life is tainted by her encounter with Charlie Manx and she is unable to cope, drinks to excess, and eventually burns down her house in an effort to exorcise the ghoulish voices that call her on the telephone to taunt her from Christmasland. Down the line, she is institutionalised, losing her grip on reality for a while, leaving her lover Lou, and son Wayne to carry on their lives without her.
I think it goes without saying that Vic is a fantastic female protagonist. She has a lot of issues (don’t we all…) and doesn’t fit the traditional conventions of what a heroine should be like; she drinks, swears, paints, fixes bikes, is covered with tattoos and is pretty much totally estranged from her family. Vic likes rock music and is realistic about her life and prospects and doesn’t kid herself that it’s all sweetness and light. She is almost a lone wolf figure; in company but always alone.
When Manx comes back in Vic’s life some decades down the line, seeking revenge, she does what she has to do; kicks ass and hunts that fucker down. She is vulnerable but doesn’t let fear paralyse her. She needs the men in her life, but more for the practicalities they offer, rather than any real emotional support; the exception perhaps being the kind-hearted Lou.
Another notable character is Bing Partridge, Manx’s gas mask-wearing henchman. Though not in a positive way at all…
I feel that for me personally, Bing represents the true horror in NOS4R2; an impressionable, remorseless, almost child-like killer and violator of women and men.
Answering a decades old advert in one of his father’s old magazines, Bing makes initial contact with Manx, who has been, over the years, advertising for Christmasland helpers.
Bing is desperate to join Charlie Manx in Christmasland, escaping his own hum-drum existence as a lackey at a chemical plant and does pretty much anything to achieve this.
He kidnaps children for Manx, gasses them into submission and then keeps their mothers for himself. Intoxicating them, raping them and then disposing of their bodies in his rancid basement.
Bing’s sadism knows no bounds as he kidnaps, tortures and rapes with the impunity that Manx’s operation grants him. The scariest thing about Bing, is that he truly believes what is doing is for the greater good, like most deluded serial killers;
‘Bing tried to tell himself that he was being foolish. He and Mr Manx were heroes, really; they did Christian work. If someone wrote a book about them, you would have to mark them down as the good guys. It did not matter that many of the mothers, when dosed with sevoflurane, would still not admit to their plans to whore their daughters or beat their sons…these things were in the future, a wretched future that Bing and Mr Manx worked hard to prevent,’ p.p. 209
As a teenager, Bing killed his father with a nail gun and, it is insinuated, raped his own mother before killing her as well. He is institutionalised until his is no longer deemed as a threat to society. Upon release, he puts in a good 30 years service with the chemical plant and dreams of bigger things. Bing is a horror that masquerades behind suburban banality.
I think that this would be a good point to mention that Manx himself is not a paedophile. Unlike Bing, who horribly violates the mothers of the children they kidnap, Manx is not motivated by sexual desire, just the very real desire to make unhappy children happy, put simply. Ultimately, Manx is using Bing to procure children for Christmasland and he does not concern himself with Bing’s extra-curricular activities.
In some ways, Manx reminds me of Willy Wonka; a figure who offers unhappy kids a future where they have complete control of their own lives, away from the negative influences of the outside world and from adults, more often than not, more concerned for themselves than the well-being of their offspring. What unhappy kid would refuse a trip to Christmasland?
All in all, I thought NOS4R2 was excellent. I thought it was an intense, bleak, thoughtful, empowering and exhilarating insight into the trials that Vic McQueen faces throughout her life gearing us up for her ultimate battle with Manx.
We are shown what it is to be good, selfless and generous, and the terrible consequences of being ruled by your own infernal desires.
Some things I noticed:
-NOS4R2 reminded me of this episode of the X-Files; where a serial killer of children is revealed to have been the Santa at an all-year-round Christmasland-esque theme park.
-When Lou, Tabby and Wayne smash the Christmas ornaments at The Sleigh House, thus releasing the souls of the children kidnapped by Manx, it reminded me of a scene in Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub. In this scene, Jack and co release children from some kind of hellish, other-worldly workhouse; children that have been kidnapped by Alzheimer’s-riddled child-killer Charles Burnside for a demon-like master. Kinda similar to Bing…
-I was also geekily thrilled at all the references to other Joe Hill characters such as Craddock, of Heart-Shaped Box fame, and also True Knot, a band of murderous pensioners to be featured in Stephen King’s upcoming Doctor Sleep. My boyfriend and I have always thought that Scott Glenn would make a great Craddock in a film adaptation of HSB…
Some last things:
Here is a great video of Joe Hill reading from the first chapter of NOS4R2.
Guardian Books Podcast with Joe Hill
Thanks for reading!