Think of a car that drives itself. Depending on your viewing and reading habits in the Seventies and Eighties, you're either thinking of the mischievous yellow Volkswagen Beetle, Herbie, or Stephen King's sinister Plymouth Fury, Christine.
Joe Hill's NOS4R2 is no love bug. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a doorstop American horror novel about a haunted classic car. Comparisons to Christine are always going to be difficult to avoid. And even more so – let's get this out of the way nice and early – when you happen to be the son of Stephen King, as Joe Hill is.
Hill's writing is smart and assured and bursting with his own style and personality. NOS4R2 – and this is not meant as a criticism – feels more like the sort of thing his dad would do.
Perhaps that's intentional – maybe NOS4R2 is meant as a homage to those big Eighties horror novels. It certainly has the feel of one, the heft and the scope. But the biggest box that it ticks is that it's genuinely scary, and you can't really ask more of a horror novel than that.
Joe Hill serves up Christmasland, a place where it really is Christmas every day, where it always snows and snowmen wave and there are always presents under the tree. Lucky boys and girls get to go to Christmasland ... they sacrifice most of their humanity and start to grow wicked little hooks in place of teeth, but hey, it's Christmas every day, right?
Christmasland is the "inscape" – like an escape, but somewhere inside you – of Charles Talent Manx, who drives around America in a Rolls-Royce Wraith with the numberplate NOS4R2 (in case you haven't got it yet, it's "Nosferatu"), kidnapping children.
Other people also have "inscapes" – Victoria McQueen, for example, is a young girl who can ride her bicycle over a decrepit covered bridge near her home and come out pretty much anywhere. When she's a child, Vic crosses paths with Manx and escapes. By degrees she forgets her special powers, until Manx exacts his revenge and goes after her own son, Wayne, forcing Vic to confront the magic and horror of her past again. Manx is an interesting villain – he seems to truly believe he is doing good, rescuing children from the privations of real life and taking them to Christmasland. His assistant Bing, the Gasmask Man, is even more terrifying.
Joe Hill has turned out a solid, scary novel, and if it is a little traditional in execution then there's nothing wrong with that. In Christmasland he has created an original and terrifying horror that might just also be a comment on festive uber-consumerism ... certainly the next time I see my kids sitting in front of a barrage of TV ads with grinning snowmen and a surfeit of Santas beckoning them in to a candy-cane landscape, I'll shiver and think of Charlie Manx and his big, old car.