By Joe Hill
“Imaginary bridge, superpowered bike. Got it,” says Lou Carmody, summing up the first half of this supernatural novel. His ex-common-law wife, Vic McQueen, has just confessed to him that as an eight-year-old, she discovered that if she rode her Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle over the no-longer-existent Shorter Way Bridge in Haverhill, Massachusetts, she could teleport to the locations of lost items. And that this led to a confrontation 10 years later with the possessor of another vehicle which could rend the universe: Charlie Manx, a deathless, withered backwoods hick who kidnapped children and whisked them away to Christmasland in his vintage 1930s Rolls Royce Wraith. The Wraith is effectively a mobile prison, turning the occupant of its backseat into a living version of Dorian Gray’s well-known portrait. This confrontation ended with Vic’s escape, Manx’s slipping into a coma, and Vic’s subsequent years of supposed insanity, alcoholism, and child bearing. That Lou accepts the truth so quickly is refreshing, keeping the hoary partner-who-doesn’t-believe-in-the-supernatural trope from being deployed—one of the few that isn’t.
The book services the genre’s fans. Got a hot, mentally damaged female protagonist? Why not have her shack up with an obese comic nerd/bike mechanic? There’s a strain of sheltering intra-geek mentality throughout Hill’s book. Bangor, Maine; Shawshank prison; the Frobisher Cloud Atlas; and Green Lantern are but a few of the references. This and an occasionally too-knowledgeable close third person POV are two of the rare distracting elements of what is otherwise a by-the-numbers horror novel raised to a prime piece of manic and maniac Americana mythmaking.
Hill doesn’t raze any ground here; he’s planting on a patch farmed by his father, Stephen King, and Dan Simmons—It and Summer of Night respectively. Supernatural horror is unleashed upon a halcyon-yet-fallen youth, seems to be defeated, and then comes roaring back in adulthood. (Because, of course, Manx comes back to threaten not only Vic but her and Lou’s son.) The ending is inevitable, and you can even call who’s going to survive. But Hill writes with such energy and urgency (a fine trick in a 704-page tome), such humanity, wit, and commitment to causing sheer terror that he animates the hidebound structure. And the book, especially Charlie Manx himself with his just-off diction, hideous teeth, and murderous perversion of Christmas (dropping NOS4A2 on December 23 would have been an inspired, if cruel, move), is indeed scary as all get out.
And what does the title, taken from the license plate of the Wraith, mean? Vic has a piece of advice: “Look it the fuck up.”