Once in awhile, you read something that triggers memories that you hadn’t even realized you had forgotten. When I read the prologue in Joe Hill’s new novel, NOS4A2 (and if you don’t get this, then you obviously don’t have a husband whose idea of a great first date was going to see Max Schrenk in the 1922 silent movie), it was the summer of 1985. I had graduated college and moved in with my boyfriend-now-husband in Pittsburgh. He was living in a seedy area in East Liberty, on the third floor of the kind of house where cooking and other smells immediately assaulted you when you opened the front door. We all had hibachis on the fire escape, and thought we were living at the height of culture. I spent that summer immersed in horror novels, something I never would have done if I’d been living by myself. To this day, Pet Sematary scares the bejesus out of me. But one of the most terrifying scenes I read came from Dracula, when Jonathan Harker and Dr. Seward open the Count’s casket and Dracula is lying there in his bed of dirt glaring up at them with vindictive eyes, which for some reason my imagination colored red. Why is something like opening up a casket so scary and so compelling at the same time?
NOS4A2 opens in the long-term care ward of a Supermax prison infirmary where the coma patients (“gorks”, according to the staff) are kept. A nurse is making her rounds, holding a bag of blood for one Charlie Manx, who “looks older than Keith Richards”, only with sharp little brown teeth. She is startled when she notices that his eyes are now open, but it’s when he grabs her wrist and starts talking about her son that the fun really begins: she drops the bag of blood which then explodes in a “crimson gush, the hot spray drenching her feet”.
Oh goody, I thought at this point: cue the shrieking violins (or Christmas carols), cause this is gonna ROCK.
In addition to being a child molester and a murderer, Charlie Manx is a vampire. He transports children in a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith that feeds on their souls using them as fuel for the journey to a place called Christmasland. Or at least he did until he was put in the hospital by one Vic McQueen, who has some interesting skills of her own. She finds things that are lost, by riding her Raleigh Tuff Burner over the Shorter Way Bridge, a derelict old bridge crossing the Merrimack River in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Only this bridge doesn’t go to the other side. The first time she crosses it she winds up in an alley in a New Hampshire burger joint.
Maggie Leigh is a stammering punk-rocker librarian in Iowa who uses Scrabble tiles to find things out and it is through Maggie that Vic becomes aware of Charlie Manx’s interest in her. Manx has a henchman named Bing Partridge who speaks in twisted little singsong rhymes that get inside your head. Bing likes to play with the mommies of the children that Manx takes to Christmasland, kind of like a cat playing with a mouse.
When Manx comes out his coma years later (well, actually, he escapes from the morgue), he’s itching for revenge, and sets his sights on Vic’s son Wayne. A mother’s love for her son is unstoppable and Vic stops at nothing to get her son back.
Joe Hill obviously attended the Dolores Umbridge School of Horror and graduated with distinction. A twisted version of Santa Claus is way more scary than straight-up Freddy Krueger, and the older I get, the less I like Christmas anyway. Loaded with rock ‘n roll, pop-culture, and literary references, NOS4A2 is often horrifyingly funny. I found it impossible to put down, and when I did, it was only to read Joe Hill’s other books, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. It was another one of those weeks that my kids shook their heads and resigned themselves to making family dinners until I finally came up for air.
Eat your heart — uh, soul — out, Charlie Manx.