"What would you do for a lifetime pass to a place where every morning is Christmas and unhappiness is against the law?"
American horror writer Joe Hill's third novel is, to some extent, a litany of horrible answers to this question.
Christmasland is indeed a magical place, an otherworldly realm where Charlie Manx takes kidnapped children, leaving their parents to be disposed of by his sidekick the Gasmask man.
He escorts them in a magical Rolls-Royce Wraith, which steals something from them, so that by the time they arrive he has vampirically replenished himself and transformed them into monsters.
Vic McQueen also has a magical vehicle, a bicycle, which helps her find things that are lost. She is the only one to ever escape Manx, and when he returns years later to steal her son away, Vic must find a way to stop Manx before her son becomes another of Manx's demonic, carefree children.
The thing is, children like Manx. They like Christmasland. They like having their souls and their unhappiness drained from them. Hill has produced a truly disturbing novel, complete with its own insane mythology, because he follows the cold logic of his creation wherever it goes.
There's never a sense that we are safe with Hill. He lets the story amble into its darkest corners. Late in the book, Manx assaults one of Vic's already-dying allies, and Hill writes: "He put his boot in her stomach. If there was any justice, she wouldn't have been able to feel it, but there was no justice and never had been, and she screamed."
Too many writers flinch from the philosophical ramifications of their stories, from what the stories demand be true in their moments, their worlds. Hill doesn't flinch.
For this reason alone, N0S4A2 towers above his previous novels, which were strong but flawed. N0S4A2 is Hill's best work, alongside his outstanding story collection 20th Century Ghosts and his engrossing comic book Locke and Key.
The notion of objects that enable magic, but at personal cost to one's soul, is at heart a metaphor for the creative process, how it may produce wonders but also monsters. Hill always focuses on story, but has a skill with language and a way with ideas that adds a great deal of depth and power to his work.
Hill once hid the fact that his father was Stephen King, using his pen name to ensure that his work was evaluated on its own terms. Now, with his lineage no longer a secret, and having built his own name, Hill has oddly, but smartly, chosen to run in the opposite direction -- writing precisely the sort of book his father is known for, replete with references to King's work.
At 704 pages, the novel even looks like one of King's doorstops.
N0S4A2 also draws heavily on the influence of Neil Gaiman, an expansive, epic horror-fantasy filled with convincing-yet-cartoonish characters, in which the thinnest membrane keeps the world of magic apart from the world of meat.
Hill rivals his father's talent for gripping the reader and making pages turn, but where King prefers a slow build and snowballing momentum, pushing his characters towards revelation, Hill prefers a sudden crash into the story.
He reveals all of the broad strokes of his supernatural world well before the main action actually begins, yet manages to hold interest and a steady pace through striking, visceral scenes and constant suspense.
The result is an immersive novel that always seems to be rushing forward, like a Rolls-Royce barrelling towards Christmasland.
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball won the Aqua Books Lansdowne poetry prize at last weekend's Manitoba Book Awards.
By Joe Hill
William Morrow, 704 pages, $32