Friday, June 13, 2014

Recommended Reading for 7/13: NOS4A2 and Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland

After finishing a years long opus of deep emotional resonance and terror, many a writer would take a break from comics. Especially if that writer also is a best selling novelist. But not everyone. Joe Hill, best known in comics circle for his horror/coming of age story Locke & Key (follow the link to a previous recommended reading on that book), had just finished the heart wrenching finale of that series when he announced his next project, a comic prequel to his most recent novel, NOS4A2. The comic, Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland, wrapped up its seven issue run on Wednesday, so I thought this would be a good time to give a recommendation to both the comic and the novel.

Charles Talent Manx has a special car, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, and with it he can do special things. The Wraith and Charlie are inextricably linked, the one the extension of the other, and the car's vanity plate, the eponymous NOS4A2, gives you a hint of the kind of creature Charlie is, even if he doesn't feed on blood. Charlie Manx is one of those people with a special psychic gift he channels through the Wraith, and with the help of a series of accomplices, he uses his car to abduct children and bring them to Christmasland, a magical theme park he has created, and there they become something less than human and Charlie siphons off their innocence to fuel his powers and his immortality.

Manx is a terrifying villainous creation. Hill has crafted a couple of great villains in the past, such as Dodge from Locke & Key and Craddock McDermott from his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, but Manx is something else entirely. Those who prey on children are especially despicable, and while Manx would never physically or sexually abuse any of his "charges" (he says there's a special place in hell for "kiddy fiddlers"), what he does is equally terrible. It is partially this strange dichotomy that makes him terrifying; Manx sees what he is doing as saving these children from abusive, cruel, or absentee parents. And while some might be, many are just in the right place at the right time to draw Manx's attention. It's this honest belief that he is doing the right thing that is part of what makes Manx so horrific; he is a cackling, mad villain, but one who truly believes he is in the right, and those are often the scariest kind of villains. And exactly what the children turn into is equally terrifying: soulless, sharp toothed monsters who revel in cruelty to any poor grown up that wanders into Christmasland who is not Manx.

Of course, a great villain can only get you so far. While we might love a good villain, the hero must be equally good to make you stay invested. The heroine of NOS4A2 is Victoria McQueen, who goes by Vic. Vic has her own special psychic gift: when Vic rides the Raleigh Tough Burner bicycle her beloved father bought her she seems to conjure from thin air and FIND things. Lost things like her mother's jewelry or a neighbor's lost dog; distance doesn't matter, the other end of the Shorter Way Bridge (once a real bridge, but now just part of Vic's psychic landscape which appears when Vic rides the bike) always brings her where she needs to go. She even finds a mentor of sorts in Maggie, a precognitive librarian who uses a bag of Scrabble tiles to see distances and the future. But there's a consequence to using these abilities, like blinding headaches and bouts of depression. And as she grows older, Vic does her best to forget what she thinks of now as childish fantasies, but as her family crumbles, a teenaged Vic does what Maggie told her not to do: Use her finding ability to track down the Wraith, a man who preys on children, who is, of course, Manx.

Vic finds Manx in his Colorado home with a victim in hand, and is able to escape his clutches, and with the help of a local youth named Lou Carmody who finds her, she is able to get locals to believe her and to stop Manx long enough for him to be arrested. Vic's life is changed; she has been attacked by Manx, and her own coping mechanism is to believe he kidnapped her. Vic leaves her home in New England and moves to Colorado, where she and Lou develop a relationship and they have a son, Wayne. Vic tries to keep her mind together, loving Lou and Wayne as best she can, and creating a series of popular children's books. But she is getting calls at random times, calls from children in Christmasland who torment her, and after some years, she finds herself alone after a stay in a mental hospital, Lou having taken Wayne at Vic's behest, worried she might hurt the boy. But things start to look up, and she begins to once again build a relationship with her son, even as her ability reawakens. But this is not to be.

During this whole time, Manx is in prison, and grows infirm and older. But the book begins to show someone who had bought the Wraith at auction and begins to repair it. As he removes the engine, Manx dies, but with a new engine installed, Manx revives and calls the Wraith to him, and his final accomplice, the mentally challenged Bing Partridge, a violent killer and rapist, goes to retrieve his mentor. The two are together again, and prepare to take revenge on Vic. And so, when the time is right, the two take Wayne, leaving Vic broken. The novel builds to a crescendo as Vic tries to convince the FBI or what has happened, and must make a last ditch effort with the help of Lou and her estranged father to save her son and to stop Manx once and for all. And so a final confrontation is due, one set against the pristine white and the large grinning moon of Christmasland.

While Hill is a brilliant horror novelist, building atmosphere and suspense with the best of them, he has picked up another gift as a writer. He builds wonderful characters, and builds their relationships in ways that make you really care about them. The Locke family were all beautifully distinct characters who you loved equally. Vic, Wayne, and Lou are equally well crafted. Vic is a broken person, tormented by a past she can't reconcile with reality, but trying her best to make a go of it. She is frightened but determined, and when the chips are down, she does her best for those she loves. Lou is a giant teddy bear of a geek, an overweight, awkward fanboy, who loves his son and the woman he wishes would marry him. And while Wayne is young, he shows some of his mother's steel when he is abducted by Manx.

Underneath all the killer children and magic cars, though, this is a book about parents and children. Vic's relationship with her parents, whether it's the mother who she feels is smothering or the father who abandoned her, Vic's own rocky relationship with Wayne, and Manx's own twisted relationship with his children, not to mention the horror of Bing Partridge and his relationship with his mother (this is a guy who actually makes Norman Bates look well adjusted when it comes to mommy issues), are all about what it means to be a parent, the lengths a parent will go to protect their child, and the responsibilities of family. These are themes that are familiar if you've read Locke & Key as well, where a deceased parent is a major part of the story. But here, Hill deals with an adult coming to terms with her family, and not children coming of age, and so it tells the story from a completely different angle.

The other central theme I feel in the novel is the power of the mind imagination to shape reality. Vic's Shorter Way Bridge, Manx's Christmasland, even the bag of Scrabble Tiles that Maggie uses, all are ways they channel their psychic gifts. And the psychic landscapes are a deep part of them, so deep that cutting herself off from it is part of what causes Vic's mental problems. Even her painting and her children's books aren't enough. Of course, there is a price to pay for using these gifts, as their is for anything, but it's the choice of the artist to pay the price to truly craft something special.

It's also fun to see Hill take a page from the books of his father, Stephen King, in starting to build a cohesive universe all his work takes place in. Manx talks about Craddock McDermott, the antagonist in Hearth-Shaped Box, and both the Treehouse of the Mind from the novel Horns and Keyhouse from Locke & Key appear on a map of mindscapes that appears at one point. I also have a theory that Eric's cape from Hill's short story, The Cape, is a channel; in the same way the bike and the Wraith are, but that's mere theory for another time. There are even a few references to Stephen King's work, with Manx talking about the Doors to Mid-World from The Dark Tower, and from It Pennywise's Carnival in Derry, Maine appears on the same Map as the other locales, but Hill has said those were just for fun and not to mean that his world and King's are the same. However, Manx is mentioned, along with his horrible car, in King's recent novel, Doctor Sleep, so there might be more to this than meets the eye.

Oh and a couple last notes about the novel before I move on to the comic. The book features illustrations by Hill's Locke & Key collaborator, Gabriel Rodriguez. They're pieces that appear at the beginning and end of each chapter, and a couple of illustrations of Christmasland appearing on the inside front and back covers, and if you like Rodriguez's art (and who doesn't), they're icing on an already delicious cake. And finally, make sure you read to the very end of the book, including the acknowledgements and the note about the typeface. Trust me.

The comic, Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland, takes place before the events of the novel, when Manx was still out and about, practicing his particularly evil craft. The first issue is a standalone story. It's a seven issue series, but the core of the story is issue's 2-5, with the first and last issues being standalone stories. Issue one is the full origin of Charlie Manx, his awful childhood, his troubled marriage, and exactly how he brought his first two children, his own daughters, to Christmasland. You can see exactly what formed Manx, what made him into the monster he is, but Hill does a good job of never making you want to root for him; just because you understand a monster doesn't make him less of a monster.

The main story starts out with a prisoner transport with guards are driving three criminals to prison. The criminals are Dewey Hansom, a sleezy Hollywood agent, King Geek, a carnival geek with a sadistic streak, and Chess Llewellyn, a man who seems out of place with the other two. But King Geek has no intention of going to jail, and after finding a way to overpower the guards, he leads the others away. Dewey Hansom then gets the bright idea to call an old friend of his, a friend he helped abduct children for. You guessed it, Hansom was one of Manx's accomplices, and he calls Manx to pick him and his fellow escapees up and bring them somewhere safe. And Manx does indeed bring them somewhere the law can't touch them. He brings them to Christmasland. And that's where the horror really begins.

Our cast is quickly separated as they realize the Christmasland isn't the home of some cult, as Hansom has always supposed it was, but something much darker. King Geek wants to take the power that Manx has, Hansom is led off by one of the children he helped Manx take, and Chess Llewellyn helps Agnes Claiborne, the guard still left alive after the initial introduction to the terrors of Manx's park, and the two attempt to find a way out. We gradually learn Chess's story, that he is in jail for assaulting a doctor who refused to treat Chess's dying son because of a technicality, and that he is a good man, not like the murderous Geek or the rapist Hansom. This ties directly into the themes of the novel, with parents and children, and there is a magical balloon that we see as another of the vehicles to the inner worlds of the mind.

Art based on a novel that you have read and loved is always challenging. Sometimes it stands out, but often it falls flat. The comics based on The Dresden Files are hit or miss, and the art for the Game of Thrones adaptation has left me cold. But the art on Wraith is perfect. I had a very clear picture of Manx, Christmasland, and his monster children in my head, and Charles Paul Wilson III actually crafted images that were even creepier than what I had in my head. His art on Stuff of Legends has a whimsical air, which works in a world of anthropomorphic toys, even ones in serious situations. But his art on Wraith is straight up horror comic. Evil children are a horror trope that makes me break out in goosebumps, and Manx's children are some of the creepiest I can recall. While all the chaos and monsters are gorgeously rendered, Wilson does an equally excellent job on the quieter moments. The scenes with Chess and Agnes trapped on the Ferris Wheel in Christmasland, just talking about their lives and being human are perfect, with facial expressions that paint a picture as well as any words.

The transition from novelist to comic book writer isn't always the easiest. I've seen great novelists fall flat in comics, and the same for great comic writer writing novels. Now with two series under his belt, it's clear that Joe Hill has the chops to write in either medium. While Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland is not the sweeping epic that Locke & Key was, it's a great horror story with the heart and mind that readers of  Hill's precious works have come to expect. And the novel NOS4A2 is one of, if not the scariest novel I have read in the past couple of years, but still tells a story about people who are engaging and interesting. With Wraith wrapped, I can only hope that Hill is working on his next big novel or comic, and that it will send just as many chills down my spine as these have.

NOS4A2 is available in both hardcover and a quality paperback edition at all major book outlets. Wraith, having just wrapped two days ago, is only available in single issues, but I'm sure a collection is just over the horizon, despite not having been solicited yet.

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