Let’s get this part out of the way: The two books under review here — Joe Hill’s “NOS4A2” and Owen King’s “Double Feature” — were written by Stephen King’s sons. As biographical facts go, that is undoubtedly an interesting one. But these two young writers have distinctive voices and highly developed talents. They deserve to be considered solely on the basis of their undeniable merits.
That said, Hill’s “NOS4A2” is the kind of big, wide-ranging horror novel that will inevitably evoke comparisons to Stephen King’s work. That, it seems to me, is less the result of direct literary influence than of a shared sensibility and a common belief that horror fiction, properly utilized, can take a reader anywhere. “NOS4A2” is horror fiction at its most ambitious, and it goes to some very strange places indeed.
The literal driving force in this novel is Charlie Manx, an ageless, vampiric entity with a wild talent. From behind the wheel of his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith (which bears the ominous vanity plate “NOS4A2”), he can travel from this world to a self-created landscape — an “inscape” — known as Christmasland. It’s a perverted region whose fundamental qualities are cruelty and hopelessness. Over the years, Charlie has driven hundreds of lost children to Christmasland, feeding on their innocence and destroying their humanity in the process. A monstrous and truly unsettling creation, he is the pure, unrestrained embodiment of the predatory impulse.
Set against Charlie is Vic McQueen, a troubled young girl with a wild talent of her own: Propelled by her Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle, she can travel across the impossible Shorter Way Bridge to retrieve lost and forgotten objects that are often a great distance away. Inevitably, Vic’s and Charlie’s paths intersect, an encounter she survives at great cost, ushering in a future marred by madness, addiction and broken relationships.
A road novel, a horror novel and — most centrally — a novel of character, “NOS4A2” is a substantial accomplishment, and it marks Hill (the author of such excellent books as “Horns” and “Heart-Shaped Box”) as a major force — perhaps the major force — among the younger generation of horror writers. Like the best of its dark breed, it offers visceral narrative pleasures while never losing sight of the human element that lies just below the extravagantly imagined surface. The result is a frightening, ultimately moving novel that speaks directly to the plight of abducted children. At the same time, it presents a deeply empathetic portrait of a damaged woman struggling to recover her lost, best self.
“Double Feature” is the debut novel from younger brother Owen King, author of the outstanding 2005 short-story collection “We’re All in This Together.” A story about movies, impossibly complex family ties, and getting on with life in the face of paralyzing setbacks, it’s a funny, surprising and genuinely satisfying achievement that has nothing in common with “NOS4A2.”
The morose hero of “Double Feature” is Sam Dolan, who is, or once was, a filmmaker. His father is Booth Dolan, B-movie actor and star of such late-night staples as “Rat Fiend!” and the “Hellhole” trilogy. An Orson Wellesian figure of boundless charm and equally boundless appetites, Booth destroyed his marriage and alienated his only son with his serial infidelities and broken promises. The fluid, cinematically structured narrative fills in key moments in the Dolan family history while focusing primarily on two crucial periods in Sam’s troubled young adulthood.
The long opening section, “Preproduction,” takes place in 2002-03 and recounts Sam’s efforts to make his first independent movie, a low-budget, generation-defining opus entitled “Who We Are.” King describes the making of that film in a virtuoso paragraph that runs for 13unbroken pages, encapsulating the endless cascade of events, problems and creative decisions attendant to even the most modest of productions. The climax of the section concerns the bizarre transformation of “Who We Are” from personal statement to cult phenomenon, a transformation that will affect Sam’s life in profound and unexpected ways.
The bulk of the subsequent narrative takes place in 2011. Sam, frozen in place by personal and professional disappointments, no longer makes movies. He is now a “weddingographer” who films people’s wedding days, a task to which he brings a basic level of professionalism and an absolute lack of passion. At one such event, he meets Tess Auerbach, a reality TV producer who strikes a sympathetic chord. Once Sam senses a possible emotional connection with Tess, he responds, in classic Dolan fashion, by running away. Most of what follows concerns the long, eventful weekend in which Sam struggles to end his self-imposed exile and rejoin the human race. That process involves the effort and support of a large — and largely eccentric — cast of supporting players. Chief among these is Sam’s estranged father, a still-charming, still-Wellesian figure who has managed to learn a thing or two from a lifetime of mistakes. Out of these elements, King has constructed a frequently hilarious, deeply affecting novel about the possibility of changing, of putting the past in its place, of learning to acquire a measure of generosity in dealing with the world.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Joe Hill
Morrow. 692 pp. $28.99
By Owen King
Scribner. 419 pp. $26