Wednesday, September 28, 2016

NOS4A2 Would Make Chekov Proud

Genre tropes get long in the tooth so quickly, turning into hoary monstrosities that still shamble onto bookstore shelves long after they ought to have been buried. Sometimes they owe their demise to oversaturation, the same old staggering off to market again and again. For example, consider zombies and their cranium-crunching cornucopia of gory stories, movies, and comics that have infected pop culture. (An aside: Would any of you be forlorn if an international diktat forbade the creation of new zombie yarns for a few years? I doubt it.) Other times, though, conventions die an iterative death, one slightly altered work following another until the concept gets so far afield that it jumps the proverbial shark. I think this is where the good, old vampire stands. Forget Stoker’s suave Count. In recent years, creatives have transitioned to prepubescent horrors, rock-and-roll revenants, and those notoriously sparkly denizens of the night. No wonder people got tired of Anne Rice’s old standbys. They hardly resemble vampires anymore. So when I saw that Joe Hill planned to visit the idea with his novel NOS4A2, I wanted to see what twist he’d work into the old legend—and I can honestly say that his take was the last thing I expected.

Victoria McQueen—dubbed “The Brat” by her rough-around-the-edges father and mostly shrieked at by her neurotic mother—has a special talent: She can find things. Forget about change between the couch cushions or missing keys, though. Vic can suss out more important stuff, things like beloved heirlooms or lost pets, pretty much anything she wants. Her talent is less impressive than the way in which she implements it. Vic conjures a long-demolished local bridge out of thin air and pedals her bike across it. Viola! Instant transportation to the missing item. But like many gifts, it comes with unanticipated consequences, real downsides that manifest themselves in Vic’s very body. Raging fevers. Debilitating headaches. Mysterious bleeding from one eye. Still, it’s a gift that Vic will need to use very soon. She’s about to come face to face with one Charlie Manx, a hundred-year-old child abductor who says that he isn’t stealing kids at all, oh no. Rather, he claims that he’s ferrying them to a magical paradise called Christmasland.

Even given the brevity of the above description, you can probably guess that Charlie Manx is NOS4A2’s titular vampire. What might surprise you, though, is that he bares no fangs, bites no necks, fails to transmogrify into a single bat. Rather, Manx’s vampirism restricts itself to the realm of the mind. Like Vic (and this is hardly a spoiler), he has a talent, only his gift feeds on the psychic energy of children. An interesting enough idea on its own, but Hill doesn’t develop it further, and that makes for pretty thin genre sauce, especially given the richness of vampiric lore. Wordy passages and crass asides—including a scene where (I kid you not) a pigeon defecates into the mouth of a fervently praying supplicant—only detract further. But where Hill excels, really excels, is in his plotting. He strews narrative firearms left and right throughout the book’s early stages, not a single one of which remains unfired by the end. Chekov would be proud. NOS4A2 may not exactly advance vampire fiction, but it’s an enjoyable read all the same.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Rodolfo Polanco Casasola)

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