As Lon Chaney once said, “There’s nothing funny about a clown at midnight.” By the same token, Joe Hill would add, if you see a candy cane in summertime, it might send a shiver up your spine.
“Good horror finds something comforting and makes it subtly wrong,” says the author. “It undermines the very things we trust most.”
In how it makes a grotesquerie of the familiar, “NOS4A2,” premiering June 2 on AMC, is small-screen horror at its most uncanny. Covered bridges that don’t take you where they ought to, a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with a mind of its own, and a Christmas-themed amusement park where ghoulish children play sadistic games — these are just a few otherworldly attractions in the series, an adaptation of Hill’s 2013 chiller novel (he’s executive-producing).
At its center is a more blatant terror: a soul-sucking vampire named Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), who drives around the country in that Wraith (license plate: NOS4A2 — sound it out), abducting children and turning them into sharp-toothed sociopaths. When Haverhill teen Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) discovers her supernatural ability to traverse time and space in search of lost objects, the two are placed on a bloody collision course.
Why Haverhill? “I know what the roads are like,” explains Hill, 46, a New Englander who grew up in Bangor, Maine; his dad is maestro of macabre Stephen King.
“If I want to write about a ghost or a vampire, the best way I can do that is to ground it in the granular details of what I know, of actual people and places,” says the author. “If I can convince you Haverhill is real, maybe I can also convince you that vampires are real.”
For all its spooky and surreal moments, “NOS4A2” will look familiar to Rhode Island residents; it was shot there last fall, from Narragansett to North Kingstown. New England roots ran deep on set; showrunner Jami O’Brien was raised in Billerica, while other executive producers hail from Seekonk and Providence.
For O’Brien, who’d previously worked with AMC on “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Hell on Wheels,” the chance to set a supernatural thriller in her own backyard was too good to pass up. When another executive put Hill’s book on her radar, she devoured it in a weekend.
“I thought, ‘I know this character and this place, this family, and then there’s this other guy, [Charlie Manx], who’s interesting, who I’d like to get to know,’ ” she recalls. “I came back and said, ‘I think I have a take.’ ”
Once hired, O’Brien worked to anchor the novel’s more peculiar elements with an authentic sense of place, sketching Vic and other Haverhill residents as hardscrabble, blue-collar workers with rich interior lives well beyond their proximity to a certain bloodsucker.
“It has this gritty naturalism about class and family dysfunction in Haverhill,” says O’Brien. “And it’s a supernatural horror show with a sense of wonder, magic, and fantasy.”
O’Brien’s ability to balance both sides of “NOS4A2” left Hill gobsmacked; he calls her pilot script “one of the finest one-hour scripts” he’s ever read. “She had this great ability to reveal character in the tiniest gestures,” he says.
Hill took a light hand in guiding the series; he says O’Brien’s perspective brought to the fore a thread in his novel about how lingering vestiges of patriarchy seek to repress women opposing it.
“There’s an ongoing conversation between an established power center in this country (which is fundamentally older, whiter, maler) and young women,” says Hill. “The see-saw goes back and forth between repression and an acceptance of women’s rights to make hard decisions for themselves.”
‘If I can convince you Haverhill is real, maybe I can also convince you that vampires are real.’
Ancient creatures of darkness tend not to have mottos, but Charlie Manx’s would probably be “something along the lines of ‘Daddy knows best,’ ” explains Hill.
“Charlie is a man who has very clear ideas about how children should be, and even stronger ideas about how women should be,” he adds. “And he hates to be disappointed. I liked that there were female authors telling that story.”
Starring: Ashleigh Cummings, Zachary Quinto, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Virginia Kull, Ebon Moss-Bachrach. On AMC June 2 at 10 p.m.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.