Joe Hill takes a cheery little Oedipal swipe at his father in the acknowledgment pages of his throat- grabbing new novel, NOS4A2. He describes the two of them riding back roads on motorcycles, Hill on his Triumph. His father, "a Harley snob," admires the Triumph, but says its engine reminds him of a sewing machine.
"I guess I have been cruising his back roads my whole life," Hill writes. "I don't regret it." This is a nice way of saying that his father, Stephen King, writes horror novels but that he, Joseph Hillstrom King, has the brass to write them, too.
And to do it excitingly well. This 692-page novel (William Morrow, $28.99) is a much bigger book than his two earlier ones, though Heart-Shaped Box (2007) was as full of uncanny assurance as uncanny tricks. (It was followed by Horns in 2010.) This time, Hill envisions an epic battle between real and imaginary worlds, makes this fight credible and creates a heroine who can recklessly crash from one realm to the other. She is a brave biker chick named Vic McQueen, who rides a Triumph, of course. When she says "Come on, honey" as the story goes into high gear, she's talking to that bike.
NOS4A2, as in Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's classic vampire movie, loves playing with words. The book's villain is a wizened ghoul who tries to lure children to a place where it is always Christmas, with fun features like a Sleigh House, and you don't have to be Cassandra to know there's something nasty about that. And NOS4A2 is not really a vampire story, anyway; Hill's imagination is much more far-ranging. Which is scarier: bloodsucking vampires or the unexpected sound of treacly Christmas music suddenly playing during the summer? Hill gets maximum chills by invoking tunes like A Holly Jolly Christmas. He also names the book's ugliest character Bing.
But the main menace is Charlie Manx, who is said — now this is unkind — to be so old that he looks like Keith Richards (and whose name evokes Charles Manson). Since a silver hammer stolen from a morgue is used to inflict damage on Manx's prey, The Beatles' Maxwell's Silver Hammer also comes merrily to mind. And the phrase "search engine" has many intersecting meanings throughout the book. Bing is a search engine's name. Manx uses his captive kiddies to search and taunt. And Vic writes children's books in a Search Engine series that, in its measly review in The New York Times, is described as a hybrid of M.C. Escher and Where's Waldo? Vic uses her Triumph engine to search for and retrieve lost things.
Vic can conjure a Shorter Way Bridge that takes her and her bike to unexpected places. This has been going on since she was a girl, and years later, when she has a son, she's still taking it for granted. (The covered bridge is full of bats. Vic named her son Bruce Wayne, after Batman's secret identity.) But these fantasy-reality transitions can be more dangerous for writers than they are for characters; some of King's books slide into dreamy realms and stay there. Hill keeps his story's occult elements neat, and he relies on fantasy only when it has some dramatic purpose. Was Vic abused and traumatized by Manx when she was a kid, or is that something she imagines? Whatever happened, she grew up to be self-destructive. "What Charlie Manx had not been able to do," Hill writes, "she had been trying to do for him ever since."
NOS4A2 is full of chills and cliffhangers, but it never turns needlessly grotesque. Yes, Bing is a ghastly figure who uses stolen anesthetic gas on the children's mommies. (That's how he thinks of them.) He wears a gas mask and speaks in moronic but well-turned rhymes. ("Boys who yelp get no help.") But these potentially sickening plot elements are offset by the dismissive, annoyed way in which Manx treats his no-talent henchman and by Bing's absurd credulousness about Christmasland. It's both macabre and funny that Bing equates his knockout fumes with gingerbread and wants to remain a giant child forever. He is in his 50s by the time NOS4A2 stages its climactic showdown.
Hill makes a major point of emphasizing the extent to which his mother, Tabitha King, has influenced his work, no matter how eagerly others connect his writing with his father's. His dedication is as nifty as any other line here. "To my mom," he writes. "Here's a mean machine for the story queen."
IF YOU GO
Joe Hill discusses and signs 'NOS4A2'
When: 7 p.m. May 4
Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir.
Admission: Free, but line tickets are required. They are available with the purchase of NOS4A2 at Joseph-Beth.
Learn more: (859) 273-2911, Josephbeth.com