Charles Talent Manx roams the country in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, stealing children. He doesn’t want to hurt them — oh, no! He wants to take them to Christmasland, a place not on any map, where the children will stay young and innocent forever, and it is Christmas every day of the year. Of course, the children will not be quite… themselves when they get there. They’ll be cold, and their teeth will be sharp and numerous. And Manx himself gets something out of the deal: he is older than anyone knows, and still looks like a young man. Hence his license plate: NOS4A2.
When Victoria McQueen was a little girl, she was good at finding lost things. Costume jewelry, stuffed animals, pets — anything anyone lost track of, Vic could find it. She, too, had a place not on the map, a road she could follow in her mind to get where she needed to be. Once, that road led her to Christmasland, and she was the only child ever to escape Manx’s clutches. But Manx is not one to let go easily.
Jenny: This is the third book I’ve read by Joe Hill, after 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box. I thoroughly enjoyed his other work — I found it sharp, original and scary — and this doesn’t disappoint. It’s a long book (almost 700 pages in hardcover!), and so it’s less intense than the other ones I’ve read of his, but it also gives him some room to spread out in the way of characterization. I especially loved some of the supporting characters, like Vic’s boyfriend Lou and her ally Maggie Leigh. They are both so vivid and flawed, I felt I could have pointed them out on the street.
Teresa: The only other of Hill’s books that I’ve read is Heart-Shaped Box, which I found vivid and exciting, but too claustrophobic and intense. So much so that I’ve been hesitant to try again, but I’m very glad that I did. This was so much better! As you say, the length lets him stretch, and the characters benefit. Lou and Maggie were so utterly my kind of people–an overweight comics geek and an eccentric librarian–but they’re bigger and more vivid than the stereotypes other authors might reduce them to. Vic, too, is a great heroine, also not easily reduced to a stereotype. Hill lets her be many things at once—vulnerable, aggressive, maternal, detached—yet she comes across as coherent.
Jenny: Here’s a question, though: did you think that coherence also applied to Charlie Manx? He was a very nasty villain, of course, but I wound up unsure in some ways what Hill was trying to do with him. Is he really just a man whose capacity for empathy has been sucked away by the Wraith, and someone we should ultimately feel sorry for? Or is he a monster, a vampire (well, a Nosferatu — there are a lot of quiet hat-tips to the film in this book), and we need feel no emotion about his fate? I was interested in the way Hill had Manx justify his child-stealing, for instance. If he were merely a monster, why would he do that? But instead, he uses his misogyny to mask his hunger, explaining that the children’s mothers (whores to a woman) would undoubtedly abuse and exploit the children if he did not “rescue” them. I thought it was an interesting conceit, but did you think it worked?
Teresa: That’s a good question. I felt like Manx believed what he wanted to believe. It was convenient to think these mothers were the monsters, so that’s what he chose to think. But I’m not convinced he ever really believed it. He needed to believe it, which I suppose shows that he has a shred of human decency—or at least an idea of what human decency should be. Is that just an artifact of a time before the Wraith? It wasn’t enough to make me feel sympathy for him, but it does make me wonder what he was before. If he ever had any humanity, it’s been thoroughly eaten away by now.
One thing that wasn’t clear to me, and it’s related to your question, is how the relationship between Manx and the Wraith works. He needs the Wraith to stay alive and get the kids under his control, but which came first? Is the Wraith like Vic’s bikes, one in a line of just-right vehicles? Unless I missed it—and it’s possible I did, so much happens in this book!—the mechanics of it aren’t really explained.
Jenny: That’s right. Hill makes it clear that there are a number of ways into the worlds of thought — inscapes — and that some of those inscapes are better places than others to be. Manx can’t get to Christmasland without the Wraith, which is fueled by the unhappiness of the children it carries; Vic can’t get to her bridge without her bikes. It made me wonder whether Christine, the Plymouth Fury Stephen King wrote about in 1983, could have gotten to Christmasland!
That, of course, brings up one of the delightful things about the book (at least for a King fan.) Joe Hill is, of course, King’s son, and King is a big and obvious influence he’s wise enough not to try to escape. The novel is original — not imitative at all — but there are several nods to King’s work in this book, and I found it great fun.
Teresa: I’ve sometimes wondered how Hill feels about the inevitable comparisons to King. The fact that he writes under a pen name made me wonder if he wants to avoid the comparison, but if that were the case, he’s in the wrong genre. Relative or not, the King comparisons are going to come if you write horror. But it was fun to see him honor King’s influence with the references to Mid-World and the Good Man and all that. The geeky characters mean the book abounds in references to all sorts of geeky pursuits, but the King salutes were different. It’s not that his characters read King; King’s world is adjacent to Hill’s somehow. I enjoyed seeing that!
Jenny: The very last page of the novel (even past the acknowledgments page) hints at the possibility that characters from this book may show up again. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be sorry to see it. Joe Hill is well launched on an intense, interesting, scary writing career, and I’m with him for the ride!