Since Christmas is on the way, I thought it a good time to look back at why Joe Hill’s novel NOS4A2 works. In the novel, Hill appropriates Christmas, a day that’s about as wholesome as wholesome (whatever that means) as it gets and twisting it to his own ends. Hill finds horror in the tropes of Christmas trees and ornaments and most notably the music, and shows us that by skewing the familiar it’s possible to create something as horrific as any slavering, bestial monster.
The novel’s villain, Charles Talent Manx III, serves as Hill’s proxy in this subversion of American values. A long-lived “road vampire” who extends his own life by kidnapping children, sucking the life out of them and dumping them in an “inscape,” Manx takes the pageantry of Christmas and turns it into something terrifying, going so far as using Christmas ornaments to trap the children.
So why is this scary? There are two primary reasons. First, because it is unexpected--the symbols of Christmas are synonymous with joy and little else in the minds of most. And second, because it subverts the sources of safety we have in our lives. This is one of the reasons The Shining works so well--it takes the concept of the father, the strong, benevolent protector of the nuclear family, and turns him into the destroyer instead. Ordinarily Jack Torrance should be protecting his wife and child from the horrors of the world, but instead he is subsumed by them. Even before they reach the Overlook, Jack is abusive to Danny, breaking his arm in a drunken rage. And once they reach the hotel, the supernatural forces at work key in on Jack’s natural weakness. By the end of the book, the institution of fatherhood and the supposed safety it provides is in tatters.
Hill takes a cue from his own alcoholic father here, with Christmas serving the role of fatherhood. Christmas is a time of joy in most people’s lives, as present and carols conspire to make children and their parents feel safe. Nothing bad happens at Christmas, right?
However, that’s not the Christmas experience for everyone. Christmas can become a time where you can’t get out of the house, where you’re subjected to various forms of slow torture at the hands of your family. It’s telling that the heroine of the book, Vic McQueen, is from a broken home herself. Christmas doesn’t have the same power that it does for everyone else, because she’s never really been safe at home. Not from feeling as though the fraying relationship between her parents is her fault, or witnessing her father’s abuse. She’s not one to look for refuge in symbols, and so when those symbols turn out to have sharpened teeth instead of friendly smiles, she’s able to prevail in the end.
Interestingly, NOS4A2 engages almost exclusively with the trappings, rather than the substance, of Christmas. There are few allusions to the religious underpinnings of the holiday, beyond mentions of songs like “Joy to the World” which would be just as home in a Macy’s as it would in a church during the season. For Charlie Manx, Christmas is about Santa and reindeer and snowmen, to the point where his inscape is Christmasland, a theme park--the only way Hill could have emphasized the commerciality inherent in Manx’s perversion of the holiday would be to make his inscape a mall. Interestingly enough, this is one of the few works I’ve read that engages with Christmas but doesn’t feel like a Christmas story, partially because of the lack of engagement with the religious or squishy Hallmark sentimentality aspects, but also because half the book takes place in the summer, and much of the unease is generated through the presence of Christmassy things where they don’t belong (a holiday song playing on the radio over July 4th weekend, for example). The story is less about a family coming together during Christmas, but a family being haunted by Christmas. In a way the holiday becomes as much of the villain as Charlie Manx.
NOS4A2, through its subversion of Christmas tropes, plays to our fear that the things we perceive to be good are really not. All gold is fool’s gold, and there is no refuge to be found in the world. There are a near-infinite number of ways that writers can reproduce this feeling--from perverting the role of a parent, to taking something children love (Christmas, ice cream, clowns) and either making it dangerous, or revealing the inherent danger in the supposedly innocuous thing, like lawn darts, or even the detachable missile in the original Kenner Boba Fett action figure’s backpack. Show the reader how even a balloon animal can cut them, and your work will linger in that reader’s mind.