What are you really scared of? Scared that you’re crazy? Or scared that you aren’t?
A few pointers to begin.
Number 1: NOS4R2 is the book that has taken several well-loved Christmas songs and turned them into nightmare fuel in my mind. Never again will I be able to listen to White Christmas without being reminded of Bing Partridge and his gas mask or Holly Jolly Christmas without the mental image of being burned alive. I’m actually listening to Christmas music right now as I write this and it’s unnerving. Thank God they didn’t ruin O Holy Night because I love that song.
Number 2: This is an absolute behemoth of a book. At almost 800 pages this was essentially two books – Vic as a child, and later Vic as an adult. It took up over 50% of my work bag and I’m pretty sure if I dropped it on my foot I’d be using crutches – it’s a hardback.
Number 3: If you can stick with it, it’s a brilliant horror novel that deals with trauma, mental illness and interdimensional travel via bicycle.
“I don’t know much about the Wraith except that he’s an old man with an old car. And the car is his knife. Only he uses his knife to cut throats. He takes children for rides in his car, and it does something to them. He uses them up – like a vampire- to stay alive.”
Honestly so much happened in this book that writing this review is a sizeable task in and of itself. Following Vic McQueen from childhood to adulthood, this is in part a narrative about a woman dealing with the fact that she was almost killed by a child-kidnapping monster and the effect this has on her relationship with her own child. That is the very simplistic, standard fiction style storyline. The less standard part is that Vic McQueen can travel impossible distances on her bicycle, riding over a covered bridge only she can find to wherever she needs to go, and that one day she finds Charlie Manx and his car and the hollow, inhuman child within. As she uses the bike to find missing things, Manx uses his to find children and take them away to Christmasland – a magical land of his own creation where it is Christmas every day and nobody ever feels sadness. Sounds like a decent guy right? Except that his car changes them, taking their ability to feel anything except a perverse kind of eternal joy and leaving behind nothing but malice, teeth, and murdered parents.
“When they get out of the car, they aren’t children anymore. They aren’t even human.”
Hill’s portrayal of trauma and mental illness is a hard hitting one. As Vic comes to adulthood her mind rationalises the trips on her bicycle as the daydreams of a lonely child, so when she finds her bike, and her bike finds Manx, her mind’s only response is to create more stories to shield her from the unbelievable truth. She didn’t find Manx on a covered bridge summoned up by her childhood bike, he kidnapped her, took her from her home and locked her in the trunk of his car. Her memories are rationalised as delusions, therapists convince her the bridge is a Freudian fantasy, the bike was a desire to be free and the phone calls from the children of Christmasland, laughing and mocking her, are all in her mind. The novel cleverly pits Vic’s memories against the nature of delusion. Of course she remembers it that way, but she also remembers it another, entirely sane way. Of course she believes it, but people have believed crazy conspiracies enough to commit horrible crimes to prevent them. Vic fights for control of her own mind once Manx is behind bars, fights to be a good mother to her son, but her fragile control will shatter once two things become apparent:
One: Contrary to popular belief, Manx isn’t dead.
Two: He’s coming for Vic’s son.
“Dewey Hansom was a screen agent in Los Angeles who specialized in child actors. He helped me save ten children and earned his place in Christmasland! Oh, the children of Christmasland loved Dewey, Bing. They absolutely ate him up!”
Bing Partridge is by far the most disturbing character in this book. A man with a violent past, desperate to see Christmasland for himself and prone to acts of horrendous sexual violence – the majority of which are alluded to as opposed to directly experienced, but please do bear this in mind if this topic is one that upsets you – who is convinced that by taking these children and murdering their parents, he is saving them from lives of abuse and neglect. You see Manx never operates alone, he requires a scapegoat, a right hand man, a person willing to do the dirty work he won’t do. He promises them a life in Christmasland if they can save ten children.
Spoiler alert here, I’m pretty sure – to Manx’s credit – that they do get to Christmasland. I’m not sure, however, that they enjoy their stay. The issue with having so many teeth is that Manx’s children sure do get hungry.
“He believed in his own decency with all his heart. So it was with every true monster, Vic supposed.”
This book is an incredible feat of magic realism and horror, but it does come with a tonne of warnings attached. If you’re particularly sensitive to things like kidnapping, sexual violence, animal cruelty – of which there is one heartbreaking scene – or issues of mental illness and psychosis, unfortunately I’d say to give this book a miss.
Also gore – it’s rare, but when it shows up it’s pretty damn graphic. A scene with an exploding tank of gingerbread scented gas will forever haunt me.
Vic is a character I very much enjoyed reading about. Ferociously independent, stubborn and determined, she’s a character that inspires genuine feeling. She’s been through horrendous things, but at the end of the day she just wants to be the mother her son deserves. The other characters in this book are brilliantly fleshed out and sometimes hauntingly realistic. I particularly love Maggie Leigh and Lou Carmody, the scrabble-tile wielding librarian whose own ability to find truth is slowly destroying her and the man who despite how crazy it all sounds, loves Vic and their son enough to believe that anything – even a magic bike – could be real. My only issue with this book, really, and the reason it hasn’t quite hit the five star mark (if I’m being very picky), is that in places the pacing slowed down quite a bit. As you can expect with an almost 800 page book that spans a few decades, there’s a fair amount of exposition and time passing which I felt slowed the novel enough to detract from the plot a little. But if you can get through to the end, if you get to Christmasland, it is everything you’ve been expecting. Also, there’s a shameless nod to the King of horror himself, and the author’s father, with the following line:
“In Maine, around the Lewiston/Auburn/Derry area, there was a place called PENNYWISE CIRCUS.”
Well played, Joe Hill, well played.
Overall while this book took me longer than normal to get through simply due to the fact that it’s GIANT, it was well worth the read. Certainly it’s made me want to read more of Hill’s works, and I’ll be recommending it to anyone who wants a Christmassy read without all the tooth-rotting sugary sweet fluff that tends to come with the festive season. Happy Holidays everyone!
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📘4.5 books out of 5