NOS4A2, by Joe Hill. William Morrow, 704 pp., $28.99.
Imagine a classic car, newly restored, being driven by a murderer for the first time since it was refurbished: it sputters at first, it settles into its rhythm, and then it goes for the kill. That's more or less what happens midway through "NOS4A2," a 686-page horror joyride by Joe Hill ("Horns, Heart-Shaped Box"). It's also a pretty good description of the experience of reading the book.
On one level, "NOS4A2" is about recovery. Our protagonista, a tough biker chick named Vic McQueen, has a horrifying run-in with serial kidnapper Charles Talent Manx at the beginning of the book, when she's a teenage girl and he's at the height of his child-snatching powers. She brings him down, but the experience dogs her throughout her life ... right up until Manx's resurrection.
Manx is a bogeyman for the ages. He looks like the vampire Max Schreck played in the movie that gives "NOS4A2" its name (pronounce it out loud), and he's not just evil, he's mean. Manx entices a cruel dead-ender named Bing Partridge with an ad in the back of a magazine called "Spicy Menace" and then teases him mercilessly; Partridge, in turn, rapes and kills the parents of Manx's victims, who are whisked away to Christmasland, an Otherworld of soulless holiday cheer.
Nobody could rightly call "NOS4A2" a flawless novel. Hill has several gimicky affectations -- for instance, ending a chapter and starting the next chapter mid-sentence, which gets old fast. Plot points are glossed over when they seem vital, revisited when they seem trivial and explained by characters who never re-enter the story.
Hill's saving grace is a rare gift for characterization. McQueen, her husband Lou, her son Wayne, and a kind police officer named Tabitha leap off the page. Manx himself has a completely recognizable loathsomeness about him, though Partridge is more of a cardboard monster. It's easy to forgive Hill that one inhuman fiend, though, since it gives him the chance to write several grimy, knock-down-drag-out battles. They give the book so much energy it's hard to stop reading.
There's a lot of self-conscious feminism here, but I wish the book's finale mitigated the strain of self-loathing Hill delineates in McQueen. "I would be so happy for you ... if you found someone worth loving, Lou Carmody," the author has McQueen think about her husband. These words ring true, but they also suggest a greater horror: Does McQueen reach the end of the narrative still hating herself? Does Manx win that battle?