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Onyx reviews: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

In the world of NOS4A2, there are special people who can create roads to imaginary places or shortcuts to real ones. The two main characters aren't avatars of good and evil; they're just a young woman who tries her best to be good and a very bad man.

The latter is 140-year-old Charlie Manx, though at first his motives seem honorable. Once a year he rescues a child from a dire future and brings him or her to a place of his creation where it's always Christmas. That doesn't sound bad, especially for kids who are fated to be abused or killed by their parents. However, Manx's prescience is never verified. Readers have only his word for his Graveyard of What Might Be. And his village of eternal yuletide isn't quite as idyllic as he makes it out to be either, because en route to Christmasland Manx extracts the souls from his young passengers to extend his preternaturally long life.

Like many vampires, Manx uses human familiars to take care of mundane chores, such as dispatching the parents of the children he chooses. His current flunky is Bing Partridge, a feeble-minded man who succumbs to Manx's allure. Christmasland seems like heaven to Bing. As a boy he was exactly the kind of child that Manx might have rescued from monster parents, so he readily believes the man's promise that he will get to go there, eventually, if he continues to demonstrate his loyalty.

Manx's nemesis is Vic McQueen, known affectionately to her father as "the Brat." When she was eight, she discovered that her new, oversized Raleigh bicycle could take her places via a condemned covered bridge called the Shorter Way. Whenever anyone loses something, Vic can aim the bridge to the article's location and retrieve it, even long after the Shorter Way is destroyed. People at the other end can see the bridge, whether it's in the middle of a city block or in a field. Some have a built-in defense mechanism that causes them to ignore the improbable. Those who can't suffer the consequences. 

When she's thirteen, Vic takes the Shorter Way from Massachusetts to Iowa, where she meets a librarian named Maggie who receives messages via Scrabble pieces, which is her way of poking holes in reality. The tiles tell them that Vic could find the Wraith. Vic doesn't know what this means and Maggie warns her against trying.

Wild talents such as theirs always come with a price. Maggie has an uncontrollable stutter and Vic suffers blinding headaches, fevers that last for days, and nosebleeds. When her bike goes missing, the Shorter Way vanishes, too. For the next few years, she convinces herself that she made up her travels, turning them into fantasy tales that feature elves and terrorists, until she finds the bike again when she's seventeen and too old for Christmasland. By now her parents have separated, her father's girlfriend hates her and she's using alcohol and drugs to try to calm her tortured mind. 

This time, although she isn't consciously looking for anything specific, the bridge takes her to Manx's Colorado retreat, a place called Sleigh House, which is a grim pun. Christmas decorations on the trees in the yard represent each of his dozens of victims. Her encounter with Manx, his dangerous Wraith and one of his children, which takes place only a quarter of the way into the novel, is one of the most harrowing scenes in the book. After her daring escape, she meets a fat man on a Harley who helps her contact authorities. Following another violent confrontation, Manx is captured and prosecuted. Years later, he dies in prison. Or so it seems.

Vic ends up estranged from her parents and living with her rescuer, Lou Carmody, a genuinely nice guy who repairs motorcycles and lives in a mobile home. They have a son together, Wayne—full name Bruce Wayne, a nod to Lou's love of comics. He's a patient and loving man who stands by her even when he gets little in return.

Victoria McQueen is one of Hill's most intriguing and complex creations, a mess of weaknesses and strengths. Her evolution over the course of NOS4A2 is nothing short of astonishing. The vivacious kid becomes a rebellious teen and then a resentful, neglectful and virtually housebound mother with a drinking problem who feels trapped by Lou's love. Then she starts getting calls from kids stranded at Christmasland, which trigger her suppressed memories. Given her circumstances and history of institutionalization, readers would be forgiven for wondering if she was going insane; however, this is a horror novel so...probably not

She discovers a talent for drawing that she first uses to create decals for motorcycles and, later, illustrated books of the "Where's Waldo" variety that become wildly successful. When she's drawing, the phone calls stop for a while, but eventually Manx's legion of soulless children break through. Her behavior becomes erratic, her addictions blossom, and she ends up alone after Lou leaves, taking Wayne with him. She spends time in rehab after burning the house down while destroying its telephones. Readers will wonder how she can recover from such lows. 

Though Manx's heart was removed during his autopsy, he comes back "to life" when someone finds his supernatural 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, whose vanity license plate—a symbolic representation of "nosferatu"—is the book's title. (In a nod to variations in pronunciation, the book is called NOS4R2 in England.) Manx is so attuned to the Wraith that its restoration has a similar effect on him, and he has little need for a heart. He reconnects with Bing Partridge to complete his mission. He also wants vengeance on Vic for her interference. Since she now fits the bill as a dangerous parent, her son becomes an obvious candidate for a trip to Christmasland. 

The book is by turns charming, dark, harrowing, violent and wryly witty. A man who catches fire is later declared dead. "Not to mention well done." Hill adopts an unusual and inconsistent habit of incorporating the chapter titles into the flow of the text. Pages seem to break off in mid-sentence, only to be completed by the title of the following chapter, often the name of a location. It's disorienting at first, but readers should soon get used to this quirk. Among the book's numerous illustrations is a "naughty and nice" list at the front with plenty of blank space for readers to add their names to the appropriate category. 

Based on the book's length, one might expect an epic with a host of characters. However, the cast is small and manageable. Most of the action involves Vic, Manx, Bing, Lou and Wayne. There are a number of exciting set pieces but at times the second half of the book feels overlong. As many pages are devoted to the four-day period following Wayne's kidnapping as were to the previous twenty-six years. 

It's not an all out pursuit, either, because Vic needs first to accept the impossible reality of her situation. The natural, rational thing to do would be to leave it to the police. She refuses to remember having met Maggie in the past. She's sober for the first time in her adult life and not eager to revisit the memories that have weakened her sanity. However, once she gets with the program and realizes there's only one way to save her son, she turns into a mother bear, riding a Triumph motorcycle toward the magic highway to Christmasland to rescue her cub.

Hill has called NOS4A2 his PhD thesis in horror. Its haunted car will draw inevitable comparisons to Christine. Rather than downplaying any parallels to his father's work, he scatters numerous allusions to King's creations throughout the book, including references to Shawshank Prison, doors to Mid-World, and St. Bernard dogs. Because of his fondness for anesthetic gas, Bing becomes the Gasmask Man and utters the same phrase as the Trashcan Man from The Stand: My life for you. Kids yell "Hi-yo Silver" on their bikes, like Stuttering Bill in It. There's a passing reference to Pennywise and mention of the True Knot from Doctor Sleep, the forthcoming sequel to The Shining

The one thing Hill doesn't do is explain where the Wraith came from and how Charlie Manx—who is cut from the same cloth as Leland Gaunt, Randall Flagg or Dandelo—became its familiar. Perhaps more of this history will be gleaned from the graphic novel tie-in Wraith.

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