Does Joe Hill hate Christmas? I don't know for sure, but whatever his personal feelings, in NOS4R2 (NOS4A2 in the US) he has created the perfect Christmas book for Christmas-haters. If tinsel makes you break out in hives, and the sound of carols makes your ears bleed, and you would rather die of thirst than drink egg-nog, NOS4R2 is the novel for you. Even setting aside its other considerable merits, it deserves praise for being such a remarkable deconstruction of the commercialized, sentimental, snowflakes-and-sugar-plums Christmas that owes more to Hallmark and Coca-Cola than to Christianity or even Charles Dickens. Joe Hill both understands and mistrusts the appeal of this denatured, unreligious Christmas, and NOS4R2 is (among other things) an exploration of that mistrust.
It begins with a monster, of course. In a brief flash-forward scene, we see the awakening of convicted murderer Charles Talent Manx, an old man who has been in a coma in a prison hospital bed for years. The scene is sprinkled with vampiric imagery—Manx's nurse drops a blood bag when he grabs her arm, and a doctor even refers to him as "the old vampire"—and the license plates on his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith spell out NOS4R2 (that is, Nosferatu), but Manx is not a literal blood-drinker. His power is more complex and insidious than that, and he is more akin to an evil fairy, or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, than a traditional vampire. With the aid of his car, Manx can drive to a place called Christmasland that exists primarily in his own mind, and that he populates with children he has kidnapped. In an ad he places in a pulp magazine, he describes Christmasland as "a place where every morning is Christmas morning and unhappiness is against the law" (p. 40). Not mentioned in the ad are the vicious murders of the children's parents, or the way Manx's presence leaches the children of individuality and turns them into sharp-toothed sadists, much like Manx himself.
Every Dracula has a Van Helsing, and Manx's Van Helsing is Vic McQueen, whom we first see as a little girl, riding her bike to get away from the sound of her parents fighting. Just as Manx can physically drive into his own imagination with his car, Vic can use her bike to bridge vast distances—literally bridge them, calling into existence a covered wooden bridge to take her from where she is to where she needs to be. Unlike Manx, who embraces his power and exploits it gleefully, Vic is frightened by what she can do, to the point of fabricating cover stories and convincing herself that they're the real truth. She uses the bridge to bring her to somebody who can tell her she's not crazy, and meets Maggie Leigh, a stammering librarian who uses Scrabble tiles to spell out prophetic messages. Maggie explains how her gift and Vic's work:
"Everybody lives in two worlds," Maggie said, speaking in an absentminded sort of way while she studied her letters. "There's the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. . . . But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. . . . Creative people . . . spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives." (p. 100)
Maggie's tiles also predict that Vic can defeat Manx, although Maggie warns her not to try; she knows that Manx is dangerous, and that Vic is young enough to be vulnerable to him. She knows, too, that those who travel through inscapes pay a price every time: "I'll let you in on a secret: I didn't always s-s-s-s-s-suh-suh-suh-stammer!" (p. 103).
Despite Maggie's reassurance that she's not crazy, Vic continues to resist the reality of the bridge, and a confrontation with Manx years later that results in his being convicted for murder does not lay her worries to rest. She tries to settle down, even having a child of her own, but she is haunted by the children Manx stole away, children who are still stuck in Christmasland and whose ghostly voices taunt her over the phone. It takes the rebuilding of Manx's car to wake him up and rekindle his powers (as seen in the opening flash-forward), and it takes Manx's kidnapping of Vic's own son Wayne to spur her to action against him. At great cost to herself, she follows him on the back of a motorcycle all the way to the gates of Christmasland—which might as well be the gates of Hell.
It's a thrilling ride, exciting and frightening by turns, and often intensely moving. Vic McQueen is a gloriously well-realized character, heroic in her courage and her endurance, achingly aware of her flaws and limitations. The use of her gift extracts a heavy toll on her sanity, with each trip on the bridge making her more mentally fragile. Even at her most stable, she is brittle and short-tempered, and sometimes self-absorbed in the way chronic depressives often are; she dwells a lot on the thought that she does not deserve the people who love her. Needless to say, these flaws do not make her family (or the reader) love her any less. Indeed, it is her very imperfections that make her the perfect nemesis for Manx. Manx wishes to create a flawless world. He lacks the imagination necessary to go beyond kitsch in its design, and he lacks the empathy necessary to allow others to influence his creation. He thinks of himself as a hero saving children from imperfect, inadequate parents who will (he is sure) abuse or exploit them. But what he is really "saving" them from is the uncertainty and difficulty of the human condition. And the example of Vic, who is the daughter of a self-absorbed mother and a deadbeat father, and the mother of a son who loves her even through her worst episodes of mental illness, makes it clear that uncertainty and difficulty are not terrible fates to be avoided, but an inescapable part of a life fully lived. And so there is something perverse and disgusting about the children of Christmastown, drained as they have been of all personality and all capacity for growth and change.
It's notable that although Manx kidnaps children and murders their parents, he does not sexually abuse them, and is offended when that charge is laid against him—and no wonder: nothing as messy and intractable as sexuality has a place in Christmasland. Unlike a pedophile, Manx doesn't want to make children grow up too soon: he wants to freeze them as they are, preserving all the aspects of childhood, even the child's thoughtless cruelty and underdeveloped conscience. One of the most effectively creepy stretches of the novel comes when Vic's son Wayne is trapped in Manx's car and gradually begins to warp from the inside out, his attitudes transforming even as his teeth fall out and are replaced by rows of sharp fangs. There is a disturbing slippage between his original personality and the sickly-sweet, sociopathic thoughts created by Manx's influence:
The little girl saw him and waved back. Wow, she had great hair. You could make a rope four feet long out of all that smooth, golden hair. You could make a silky golden noose and hang her with it. That was a wild idea! Wayne wondered if anyone had ever been hanged with their own hair. (pp. 525-6)
As I read NOS4R2, a quotation from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being echoed in my mind—a quotation that fits NOS4R2 so well that I would not be surprised if Joe Hill had deliberately set out to prove it. Kundera says "Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence." Christmasland is the embodiment of kitsch: a world without complexity or depth, without sorrow or pain, and therefore a world without any true joy. Manx aims to create paradise by subtracting all the things that threaten his tranquility, and the end result is a hideous parody of childhood happiness. It takes an unhappy and stubbornly imperfect person like Vic, emotionally troubled, plagued by bad habits, never quite sure she is worthy of the love she finds, to smash through this pretense at perfection.
I've always loved Christmas, for all the schmaltz and saccharine the season attracts, but despite that, I loved this novel too. Tightly plotted, smoothly written, emotionally rich, confident in its themes, and peopled by brilliant creations: NOS4R2 is the most satisfying new novel I've read in ages.
Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.
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