Forget Christmas in July. Try Christmasland instead.
Sure, Joe Hill's new novel came out in May, but for those who haven't gotten to it yet, now is the perfect time. After all, despite its 700-page heft, NOS4A2 flies by. Reviewers love to throw around phrases such as "a quick read" after they've slogged through a novel or biography, but Hill's horror-fantasy mash-up lives up to the description minus the false advertising.
So what of Christmasland? It's the imaginary-but-real refuge of one Charlie Manx, a man somewhere past 100 who refreshes his aging body by sapping the souls of troubled children in exchange for their eternal residency in a ghoulish Christmas-themed wonderland. Thus the title, culled from Manx's vanity plate and a play on Nosferatu, the 1922 German movie adaptation of Dracula.
Manx is a vampire, but not in the traditional garlic, crosses and sunlight manner. And his fortress makes Transylvania look like Mykonos (among its features: a 120-foot Christmas tree decorated with severed heads). Manx powers between the physical world and his holiday-themed alternate universe in a vintage Rolls-Royce Wraith that does some very nasty things, much like Stephen King's Christine.
As for the King of Horror, now is as good of a time as any to get this out of the way: Hill is Stephen King's son. He writes pop fiction-horror similar to his dad. And, for those who have read his first two novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, no further explanation is needed to make it clear Joe Hill's talent is apparent and abundant.
As strong as the first two novels were, along with a short-story collection, Hill comes into his own with NOS4A2. It's pulpy and smart and filled with characters who are three-dimensional, authentic, confused and, more often than you would expect, funny.
Start with Victoria McQueen, AKA the Brat. She comes from a home plagued by abuse and other ugliness, occasionally leavened by confused but sincere love from her parents. Vic spends a lot of time in her head and on her bike. Eventually, her head and her bicycle transport her long distances, to New Hampshire and Iowa and other places where she can rescue lost heirlooms.
But, of course, such intuition and magic comes at a steep price. And, yes, others have similar gifts. Charlie Manx wants children to find their way into these real but rare "inscapes," where he can lay claim to the young minds to replenish his decaying body.
Vic turns out to be among the few, maybe the only one, to escape Manx in the other world they and others occasionally inhabit. Which means payback remains very much on Charlie Manx's mind.
The fun here comes in several varieties: the agonizing cat-and-mouse game between the grown-up, troubled adult version of Vic and the eternally malevolent Manx; the faded dreams and shabby realities so often linking our childhood and grown-up selves; and the demented sense of humor sprinkled throughout the story.
Manx needs help with his work and finds it in a 42-year-old hapless weirdo named Bing Partridge. It is left to Bing to dispose of parents when necessary so that Manx can tend to the children. Bing tortures and rapes his victims after gassing them with sedatives stolen from his job as a janitorial supervisor at a chemical company. The gas smells like gingerbread, yet another play on childhood-turned-twisted.
As a child, Bing, among other things, killed his dad with a nail gun and then polished off his mom, too. You might say he has issues.
He and Manx find one another after Bing, thumbing through his dead father's pulp magazines from the '40s, responds to an ad for Christmasland. Bing, it turns out, is too dim to realize that offers in decades-old comics might no longer be valid. But in this strange case, of course, the advertisement is valid, thanks to Manx's pseudo-immortality.
By the time Manx makes his presence known, Bing finds himself dreaming strange dreams about Christmasland, serenaded by the taunt: "MERRY GODDAMN CHRISTMAS, BING, YOU CRAZY THING!"
Hill drops in observations on pop culture (one character wants to stay alive, in part, to see how George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series of novels ends) and inhabits everyone from Vic and Manx to a female FBI agent and a drug-addled, homeless librarian.
Thus, an observation like this — "A woman could get any tattoo she liked, but they all said the same thing. They were a sign reading AVAILABLE FOR RENT." — becomes as expected as the creepy stuff.
Vic goes crazy, burns her house down, wanders in and out of rehab and still shows a resiliency borne of her love for her own son. Just like Vic, he's got problems (he's named for Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne) and, just like his mother, he can chalk up a lot of his problems to screwed-up parents. Manx, literally undead, seeks revenge with the most obvious and devastating of weapons: taking Vic's son to Christmasland and out of this world forever.
Throughout, Hill shows his natural flair, enhanced by plenty of hard work, no doubt, for creepy-crawly horror.
"The boy in the car looked close to death — or beyond death," Hill writes. "His face was lunar in its paleness, except for the hollows of his eyes, which were bruise-colored. Black, poisoned veins crawled beneath his skin, as if his arteries were filled with ink, not blood, and erupted in sick branches at the corners of his mouth and eyes in his temples."
Need a little more? Hill tosses in a few meta-fiction references to both his own and his father's stories, including mention of the True Knot, a clan of villains who similarly feed on children in King's forthcoming sequel to The Shining. Got all that? Never mind. Grab a copy of NOS4A2 and sink into a fun, scary, heartfelt and sprawling novel sure to make the world disappear.
Caveat emptor: Don't stay in Christmasland too long.