There is a hunter on the prowl, and his name is Charles Talent Manx, an appropriate appellation for indeed he does have a talent, for slipping between the walls of reality in his black Rolls Royce Wraith, snatching children from their lives in the real world and taking them back to his imagined realm of Christmasland, where snow always falls, the music is enduringly festive, there are presents to open every morning, and the favourite game is scissors for the drifter.
Vic McQueen has a similar gift for slipping through hidden gateways; as a child on her Raleigh Tuff Burner, she could cross the Shorter Way Bridge, even after it had been knocked down and existed only in her memory, and on those trips she would find lost objects, bracelets and photographs. But once, as a teenager, she decided to go looking for trouble, and what she found was the black car with the licence plate N0S-4R2.
The third novel from Joe Hill may start in the summer days of carefree bicycle rides in the forest that are reminiscent of the backdrop of his previous novel Horns and are also a reminder of the happier days long gone of his father’s epic work It, but as soon as it hits the road it turns into a darker beast. Now a struggling writer and illustrator of children’s books with a young son of her own to protect, a warning comes to Vic that the wheels of the black car are on the road again, and she must overcome her past in order to defeat Manx and save her family.
Each of Hill’s novels is a different take on family – in Heart-Shaped Box it was Judas Coyne, alienated from his abusive father and facing another family corrupted by their own evil stepfather, yet finding unexpected strength in the girlfriend he had been pushing away and her grandmother; Horns was a son who had fallen from favour following a falsely accused crime. Here Vic loved her father dearly as a child, but following her encounter with Manx she descended into serious mental health issues and her life fell apart as completely as her parents’ marriage.
N0S-4R2 is in some ways an easier read than Heart-Shaped Box or Horns – Jude was a difficult man to be in the company of for extended periods, and Ig, well, he had troubles, too, even before he sprouted horns. For all her demons, the bats flapping in her head, the voices of dead children on the phone, Vic wants to do the right thing and functions best under pressure: put her up against Manx or an unsympathetic FBI shrink and she will grab for whatever is closest to hand and keep moving, just the wheels and the road, but as can be imagined, it is not necessarily a pleasant ride. It’s not enough for Hill to torture his characters mentally – in both previous novels he has beaten and bloodied his protagonists, wounded and maimed them, left them for dead in the woods, and this is no different.
The dimensional bridge of the Shorter Way has a Twilight Zone feel to it, helped by the flickering static image of the detuned television as Vic traverses, and while a kid on a bicycle riding to weirdness recalls Eerie, Indiana, any further similarity to Joe Dante would be with The Howling, most definitely aimed at adults. While in some ways a vampire novel, as reflected not only in the title but recalled in specific references to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with the daughter of the Demeter family referring to the Rolls Royce hood ornament as the bloofer lady, there are wider references to Horcruxes and Browncoats as well as Hill’s own novels and those of his father, the Treehouse of the Mind, Derry, Pennywise Circus, sprinkled as liberally as the snowflakes of the sinister Christmasland.
It is pleasing that Hill, who initially used his middle name specifically to avoid being linked with the legacy of his father, is now comfortable enough in his own career to make these inclusions, and a specific reminder of Stephen King is the pain Vic experiences when she is forced to use the bridge, an echo of the deterioration of Andy McGee when he “pushed”, a side effect that his much more powerful daughter, the “firestarter” Charlie, was spared, but while an obvious comparison is with another possessed car this story is as different from Christine as a 1938 Rolls Royce is from a 1958 Plymouth Fury.
Looked on as a road novel, in places it does dally rather than pushing onwards, detailing every last mile of that road rather than accelerating to its destination, and while the invention and depth is admirable, the realism and authenticity undeniable, the prose does sometimes lack the urgency expected of the situation, but it is still a tale for anyone who ever felt something rotten lay underneath the sugared make believe of the festive season and a further gift beneath the tree from one of the most important voices in modern horror literature.