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Originally published Friday, May 17, 2013 at 5:02 AM

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‘NOS4A2’: draining the potential from his young victims

Joe Hill’s new book, “NOS4A2,” imagines a soul-sucking pedophile on the hunt, whose worst crime may be draining the youthful potential from his victims. Hill appears Saturday, May 18, at Seattle’s University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Joe Hill

The author of “NOS4A2” will appear at 4 p.m. Saturday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

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Riding her bike through holes in reality, second-grader Vic McQueen finds lost things and brings them back: jewelry, toys, dead pets. As the heroine of Joe Hill’s “NOS4A2” (Morrow, 704 pp., May, $28.99) ages, she loses faith in her own abilities, darkly magical and otherwise. She seems to lose pieces of her mind as well, bartering sanity for the shortcuts she knows it is impossible for her to take through time and space.

That’s a bad enough trade, but soon an eerie, soul-sucking pedophile named Charlie Manx ups the ante. First her secret routes deliver the now teenage McQueen into his serial-killer clutches; she becomes the first minor to escape. Then she has a son, and Manx makes him his prey.

Joe Hill’s father is horror giant Stephen King, but Hill has two acclaimed novels, a stellar story collection and a mind-blowing graphic-novel series to his own name. “NOS4A2” is his longest and most ambitious work yet.

Besides fussy, strait-laced evil­doer Manx; fierce, fragile, stubborn McQueen; and her confident yet vulnerable son Wayne; Hill gives us a host of other involving characters. There’s Bing Partridge, a misogynistic murderer with a handy supply of psychotropic gases. There’s Maggie Leigh, a librarian and self-mutilator with a set of oracular Scrabble tiles. There’s my favorite, Wayne’s father Lou Carmody, a morbidly obese Klingon scholar and comics geek who fights to save his family come hell or heart attacks.

Very few of “NOS4A2’s” 700-plus pages are static descriptions of these folks; most of the time Hill tethers us to their viewpoints and has them tow us along as they blunder or slink or sleuth their way through the story. Their actions reveal their essences. Illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez, the artist who co-created the “Locke & Key” graphic novels with Hill, avoid portraiture; instead, they offer visions of objects encountered along the plot’s complex, winding path: an IV bag full of blood, a motorcycle wrench, an autopsy hammer, a shattered Christmas ornament.

The creepiness of Manx’s version of the Yuletide season lurks in this novel’s background like Muzak from a mistuned pipe organ. Its title is the same as the vanity plate (“NOS4A2” — a pun on the word “nosferatu” or vampire) of the 1938 Rolls-Royce the villain uses to transport his victims to Christmasland, an imaginary realm “... where every morning is Christmas morning!” On his journeys there, Manx grows ever younger while his juvenile passengers grow ever less human, their real innocence and potential drained away and replaced with those qualities’ ghoulish parodies.

A semi-functional, drug-abusing mother, McQueen wishes midway through the book that she hadn’t been “stupid enough to have a baby.” Her sincere but impaired attempts to free her son from Manx’s depredations may be too harrowing for some parents to read, though “NOS4A2” is laced with references to popular culture (including Beatles songs and a few of King’s best-sellers), and these can lend it a lighter feel. But for anyone willing to submit themselves to Hill’s literary ministrations — sometimes gentle, sometimes gritty and abrasive — this novel will prove utterly absorbing.

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