Novel * Joe Hill * Poisoned Nostalgia * 2013
I don’t know what I expected from this, being totally unfamiliar with Hill’s work, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this. Well, that’s unfair. We usually have expectations going into any work of any medium, even if they’re formed simply from a movie poster or book cover. In this instance, I picked this up on a friend’s recommendation. Also, I know who Joe Hill is even if I haven’t read his comics or other books. These two factors, in addition to the title, led me to believe that I was in for a horror story. Spooky shit about vampires, most likely. And it kind of is! What I did not expect was to be kicked repeatedly in my feel-basket. NOS4A2 is about many things, but it is primarily the story of a woman who has struggled and failed to lead a normal life. Who has, despite her intentions and her character, hurt both herself and those around her. Yes, there is a good deal of exciting action and scary scenes with fantastical elements, but the bedrock of the novel is the emotional turmoil of a failed life.
Well, that’s a little harsh. The woman at the center of NOS4A2 is Victoria McQueen (who ends up riding around on a Triumph, and it’s like Hill didn’t even try to obfuscate the allusion). Her story begins when she is only eight years old. Plot-wise, it is soon learned that Victoria (otherwise known as ‘The Brat’) has a special, latent power. She can find lost things. The Brat does this by riding her too-big-for-a-little-girl bike and thinking about the lost thing, generally in a state of emotional upset, until she finds a bridge. She then rides across it and winds up where the lost item is, which she can then retrieve, thus (hopefully) ending her distress. It should be noted that this bridge does not exist, and is conjured from Victoria’s own mind. Story-wise, this bridge-conjuring is incidental, and what is truly important is the state of mind this sad little eight year old girl is in. Her home is not a fun place. Her parents don’t seem to like each other much. Victoria’s mom is a hysterical shrew, constantly yelling and thinking the worst of people. Victoria loves her father, but the reader understands right away that he kind of sucks too, that he drinks too much and likely has a heavy hand with his wife when drunk.
This part of the narrative moves quickly, and we soon leave poor eight year old Victoria behind and rejoin her as a moody, troublesome teen. It should be understood that Victoria is a mess, but is still good at heart and immensely likable. The crux of the plot occurs when she’s in full teen-angst mode, but it should also be understood that this angst is completely earned. Her beloved father betrays her, leaves the house and shacks up with some girl, and Victoria subsequently learns all kinds of sordid shit about the old man. So she’s upset, goes out looking for trouble, finds her bridge, and finds a dude named Charlie Manx.
Manx is a bad man. He drives a bad car. He has a bad friend named Bing. Together they do bad things. To be a touch more specific, Manx is a child predator. He doesn’t molest them, physically, so that’s a relief because I’m not trying to read about that kind of thing over here. No, Manx is a kind of psychic vampire, and prolongs his own life by sucking the life and goodness out of children. He abducts these kids, traps them in his 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, and takes them to a place called Christmasland. This place does not exist in reality, and is rather a psychic construct like Victoria’s bridge. Once the kids have been drained of their humanity, they turn into little horrible monsters. Meanwhile, Bing (again, it’s like Hill doesn’t even try to hide his allusions, points it out in the text even, like give me some credit over here) is a doughy, disgusting middle-aged psycho who takes care of the parents. And by ‘takes care of’ I mean gasses, rapes, and murders.
Once Victoria finds her way to the ‘Sleigh House,’ which is the real-world analogue to Christmasland, she has a near-fatal encounter with Charlie Manx. She escapes (obviously) and the rest of the novel concerns an adult Victoria McQueen as she tries to overcome all the trauma in her life. It’s a tough read in parts, far more because of the scenes concerning Victoria’s pathetic attempts at being a mother than the scenes of violence and terror. Not all of Victoria’s problems come from Charlie Manx, but clearly a good many of them do. Manx and Bing are evil, but the book views them from an odd angle. Occasionally, there is a motion to try and explain their behavior. When they speak, their motives are clear. Both villains suffer from an acute case of nostalgia.
Nostalgia by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can scroll through the archives of this here site and see some evidence that I’m not immune to the sweet comfort of the past. I happen to get nostalgic about the 1990s on occasion. It’s not that I think the nineties were the pinnacle of human art. I ain’t no dummy. I did a school, I know better (the pinnacle of human art would be the 1920s, fight me). I can listen to the music and watch the movies and remember a time when things were simpler. Except, of course, they weren’t. The world was every bit as complicated and unpleasant as it is now (well, maybe a little less because 2016 has been a real nutbutter of a year). But my life was simpler, because I was a teenager. I had my whole future in front of me. Unknown, scary, but exiting for all that. Nostalgia is intensely personal and it’s super easy to conflate those personal feelings with the time period itself. This is clear, because the target is always moving. If you doubt this, consider your feelings the next time you hear Limp Bizkit. Probably wry amusement, right? A certain fondness for the abject silliness of the early 2000s. That’s the next nostalgia wave, and people hitting 30 are now looking back to that nonsense and getting warm (probably slightly embarrassed) feelings about their youth. And that’s all fine. I kind of can’t wait for the inevitable Chocolate Starfish Redux reunion tour.
There is a certain darkness about nostalgia, however, and taken to extremes it can be damaging. A person can take too much solace in the past, and forget that the world has always been tough. Like I said, it’s easy to conflate personal feelings with the actual time period, which leads an individual to misunderstand the flow of history. I’ve had this discussion with my father: the world wasn’t a better place in the 70s, you were just being a drunk knucklehead with your idiot buddies and you miss that freedom. Yet that nostalgia can color your worldview. If you think the past was inherently better, then the present is therefore worse. If a certain loudmouth, would-be demagogue comes along and promises to return the good times, well, that’s a strong message. “Vote for me and your coal mines will reopen and Led Zeppelin will reunite because John Bonham will come back to life and you’ll get your Z28 back. Also your hair will grow back and the cocaine will flow like water. It’ll be great!”
NOS4A2 takes this dark edge of nostalgia a step or two further. Charlie Manx and his sidekick Bing are both nostalgic fools. Their nostalgia is a bit older, however. Manx is a dang vampire, so obviously he’s quite old. As it is revealed later in the story, he’s around a hundred years old. He had a traditional family, and he was the head of the household. Manx felt that his wife was a bad person. Maybe she was. Maybe she just had uppity thoughts of equality and better treatment of women. Either way she was a threat to Charlie Manx’s worldview. Eventually, Manx learned how to be a vampire and consequently how to freeze time for himself. Manx has convinced himself that he is saving the children he abducts. By sucking their very life-force, he enables them to live in a place free from the real world. In Christmasland they live in a world of permanent nostalgia. It’s a fifties era Christmas, every day, where nobody has to worry about changing social values.
This is the focus of Manx’s evil. He is a man of his era, but nostalgia has poisoned his mind, his very essence. The narrative he has constructed to hide the truth of this evil from himself is built around the notion that he’s saving kids from wicked parents. Abusive, nasty parents. Like Victoria McQueen. We readers know, of course, that Victoria is not a bad person. She’s not a great parent, that much is clear, but she obviously loves her son and the fact that her various ailments have kept her from being a good parent is her life’s great shame and torment. More importantly, Victoria tries. And her son, Wayne, sees and understands her effort. Victoria redeems herself early and often throughout the back end of the book. She earns redemption even though I’m not entirely sure she needs to. She muddled through her life with next to no support, endured trauma with little to fall back on other than her own strength. That would have been difficult even without the supernatural aspect of evil vampire children calling her from another realm of existence.
None of that matters to Charlie Manx, however. As far as he’s concerned, Victoria is just another nasty woman. She has tattoos, after all, and swears. Ladies didn’t do that in his time, which was (from his viewpoint) an objectively better time and place. Any woman with tattoos and who curses is therefore a whore, and a whore only knows how to abuse children, therefore that child is doomed and only Charlie Manx can save him. In order to keep the operation clean, the whore-mother is given to Bing to be used and killed. After all, a lady with tattoos shouldn’t expect her life to end any other way.
Obviously in the end, Manx is defeated and young Bruce Wayne’s (give me a break, Joe Hill) soul is saved by the brave, bittersweet sacrifice of Victoria McQueen. It took me about two-thirds of the novel to understand that this is where we were going to end up. Maybe I’m a little slow. Anyway, the conclusion of the story seems to be a pretty strong rejection of nostalgia as a crutch. Victoria never really had any, considering she spent a good deal of time trying to obscure her unpleasant past. Lou, who is great despite not talking about him much, always seems focused on the present (or his fantasy worlds, which is a whole other kind of emotional crutch). Either way, our heroes seem to see the world as it is (fantastic, otherworldly elements and all) rather than how they wished it was based on dim recollections of youth. In the end, their lives are clearly better for it.