I was destined to love Joe Hill. Stephen King is my entire world so when I first heard of Joe Hill, I was instantly ready to support and love him. Luckily for me, he’s not that hard to love. In 2005 he released his first collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts. I immediately knew that we had a winner. Since then, he’s put out four novels, a comic book series, another short story collection, and a personal essay collection. This October we’ll get another collection, Full Throttle.
This summer, AMC is adapting Hill’s novel, NOS4A2, so I decided to re-read the story since it has been a few years. Let’s talk about it!
Meet Charlie Manx, an impossibly old serial killer who made dozens of children disappear back in the nineties. He had a house called the Sleigh House where he would kill them, and then hang Christmas ornaments in the trees outside in memoriam. Your basic run of the mill, terrifying serial killer, right? Nope. Manx is something else. He takes the children, that much is true, but he brings them into his mind, a place called Christmasland, where he sucks them dry. Manx is a vampire. A Christmasy creepy vampire. And he drives a Wraith, with the license plate NOS4A2.
Next up we meet The Brat aka Victoria aka Vicki aka Vic. When she was 8 years old, she discovered the Shorter Way Bridge. This was a bridge that was seventy years old and three hundred feet long. It had been condemned years ago after it collapsed into the river. But for some reason when Vic got on her Raleigh bike and went looking for missing objects, the bridge would appear. She’d ride across it and come out somewhere else and find the object. This first happens when her mother’s bracelet goes missing. Vic rides across the bridge and ends up at Terry’s Primo Subs at Hampton Beach where her and her family had recently vacationed. In the restaurant she finds her mom’s bracelet and brings it back to her.
But of course, she can’t tell the grownups or anyone else that it happens. Because it’s too unbelievable. And when Vic crosses the bridge she gets very sick.
Finally, let’s meet Bing. He’s a troubled man who answered an ad in a magazine for a place called Christmasland. It was looking for a new security person to join the team. When we meet him, Bing is working for NorChemPharm and has done so for 18 years. He’s a good employee. But Christmas means a lot to Bing, and reminds him of a time before he killed his Dad and his Mom. Bing starts dreaming of Christmasland, “he could hear the music too, and how the children screamed. If you didn’t know better, you would think they were being butchered alive.” And finally, one-day Charles Talent Manx the Third arrives, CEO of Christmasland Enterprises, director of Christmasland Entertainment, president of fun!
Bing and Manx become a great team. Or a terrible team. Depending on which way you’re looking at it. They begin to steal children and murder their parents.
Vic has started to grow up. And she’s troubled by the shorter way bridge and her imagination. She wants to find someone who can help her, so she crosses the bridge to find some help. She finds a purple haired, twenty something year old, who works in a library. Her name was Maggie.
She helps Vic. Because Maggie has her own version of the bike and the bridge. She has her scrabble tiles, an endless bag, that she pulls from and that help her. “The tiles are just my knife. Something I can use to poke a hole in reality.” Maggie goes on to explain that strong creatives can use a knife to “cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives.”
So, Vic and Maggie are able to use their own brain to move through reality. But they have to have a sort of totem to help them do that. And then we learn that Manx is the same way. His Wraith is his knife and Christmasland is that crack in reality where he takes those children. Maggie warns Vic about Manx, but it’s not until a few years later when Vic is 17 that Manx and herself finally collide.
Vic’s Dad has left her and her Mom, and the two of them are not getting along. Vic is damaged from all the times she crossed the shorter way bridge. And she’s starting to think it was never real in the first place. When her and her Mom get in a particularly bad fight, Vic runs away and ends up using her bike to cross the shorter way bridge.
“She had wanted to find some trouble, and the Shorter Way Bridge had never steered her wrong.”
On the other side of the bridge is the Sleigh House. Vic quickly finds the Wraith in the garage and shortly after encounters Charlie Manx. From there on out, Vic must spend a life time running from this mad man and protecting herself and her future son.
NOS4A2 is an incredibly complex story that covers a wide range of issues and emotions. It’s a deep dive into mental health, trauma, how we deal with our problems, and where we place the blame.
This story is dark. There’s not a lot of happiness within these pages. Even at the very end of the book, there’s a darkness that won’t leave you. But it’s cleverly crafted and beautifully written so that it never gets depressing. And as someone with an anxiety disorder, I spend my life highly medicated and dealing with agoraphobia and trust issues, I found this book a joy to read. I could easily relate to Vic, to Maggie, to Wayne, to Louis. They are all of us. Every aspect of mental illness is on display here and written about in a respectful but fantastical way.
When Vic escapes from Manx the first time she “had left her childhood well behind her. It smoldered and burnt to nothing, along with the rest of the Sleigh House.” But she had already started dealing with mental illness the first time she crossed that bridge. It’s a great skill to have, the ability to find something that’s missing, but the toll it takes on Vic is intense. The same with Maggie - the more she uses the tiles, the worse her stutter gets. And Manx, his skill kills him over and over, but instead of allowing it to defeat him, he takes children and sucks their youth from them, keeping him alive. Vic and Maggie instead go to addiction and destructive behavior to keep themselves chugging along.
Vic spent most of her adult life being told that the bridge never existed. That it was a figment of her imagination and her creation out of trauma. She’s medicated to the nines and given therapy and sent on her way. But Vic knew deep down that the bridge is real. And when she stops taking her meds and her son, Wayne gets taken, it’s like she knew ahead of time what she was doing.
“All those times she had crossed the bridge, not once had it been the fantasy of an emotionally disturbed woman. That was a confusion of cause and effect. She had been, at moments in her life, an emotionally disturbed woman because of all those times she had crossed the bridge.”
So, it’s an interesting take on where mental illness comes from. We know it’s genetic. And we know it can be created out of trauma. Vic was always destined to suffer because she was born with this gift that would eventually kill her. But by misdiagnosing her and assuming she’s just a raving lunatic, they only put a band aid over the wound. And when it finally reopens, it destroys Vic inside and out.
But Vic in the face of trauma is incredible. She’s spent most of her life hiding from it, medicating herself to get through it, but when push comes to shove, it’s her own inner strength that saves Wayne. When faced with Manx she doesn’t cower, she drives straight after him on her bike into Christmasland.
And Wayne himself, he’s had a life of trauma. Being raised by his Dad, Louis, and Vic wasn’t perfect. He’s had to deal with a “crazy mother” and not knowing his grandparents. So, when Manx comes to save him, the internal battle Wayne goes through is so powerful. He fights against Manx who’s sucking the life out of him. But sometimes he just wants to give in and let it all go. And I think a lot of us with mental illness know that feeling. Sometimes when it’s 3 am and everything hurts and the night seems endless, there’s a small part of your brain that thinks that maybe it is easier to just give in. But instead, we fight. Night after night. And Wayne fights as hard as he can. And he succeeds.
The imagery in this book is dark as I’ve mentioned. But there’s some real great horror moments which is what makes this such a great horror novel. Manx himself is terrifying in the way he’s described; six and half feet tall at least, bald, pale skull crawling with blue veins, his features weasel-like and crowded close together in the center of his face, sunken chin and an overbite. The Wraith is terrifying with it’s never-ending back seat and hidden drawers and a mind of its own. And Christmasland is the ultimate horror.
All the children in Christmasland are like little vampires, “unnatural smiles displayed mouths filled with tiny, pointed teeth.” One child “wore a necklace of bloodied thumbs and fingers”. There’s a giant Christmas tree in the center of town and Vic almost loses her mind when she realizes what the ornaments are up close. “Heads: leather-skinned, blackened but not spoiled, preserved partially by the cold. Each face had holes where the eyes had once been…. they were the only adult faces in sight”. And on the roller-coaster the carts are filled with bodies. “Mummified bodies: dozens of crucified men and women, their skin blackened and withered, eyes gone, their clothes filth, frozen rags.”
So, don’t let me lead you astray. Yes, this book is about mental illness and trauma, but it’s also a horror book through and through. Every element is soaked with horror history.
And I think this is why NOS4A2 is such a success. We find light in the darkness. This book is terrifying and dark, but it keeps hope strong. And ultimately, we take strength from this story. We turn to horror because it puts a face to our internal monsters. It helps us deal with the internal struggle and anxiety that we live with. Horror reminds us that we’re okay, that we’re normal, and that even though there’s a serial killer that takes children to Christmasland, mental illness is the real evil. Because it’s the reason for everything that happens in this book. So, we must keep fighting and not let mental illness defeat us. Become The Brat and fight like hell for your life, because we only get one. And don’t push away those that love you because you do deserve them.
“The difference between childhood and adulthood, Vic had come to believe, was the difference between imagination and resignation. You traded one for the other and lost your way.”