Joe Hill and Charles Paul Wilson III’s “Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland” is a horror tale which unfortunately suffers from a lack of effective horror.
“Wraith” has the feel of old horror anthology comics like “The Unexpected” and “The Witching Hour”, in that it’s a story where nightmarish fates befall two-dimensional louses who more or less deserve what they get. The problem is, the characters from those books typically inhabited a seven to ten page story. In “Wraith”, the main story is stretched over five chapters, leaving us caring very little for the outcome of the small band of potential victims who find themselves trapped within the hellish confines of Christmasland.
Hill opens “Wraith” with an overlong prologue titled “Fantoms” which introduces us to the story’s monstrous villain, Charlie Manx. We first meet Charlie as a young boy in the early part of the Twentieth Century where he finds himself caught in the middle of unfortunate circumstances. Though his luck turned for the better as he grew into manhood, life became exceptionally hard on Charlie. He gets conned out of his savings after investing in a never completed theme park called Christmasland. Charlie is transformed into a ghastly being who’s sole purpose is to bring innocent children to the otherworldly theme park to live as flesh eating demons who inflict unimaginable acts on the adults that Charlie also chauffeurs to this hell on Earth.
The problem with this introductory chapter is that it takes at least twice the amount of space needed to get to the conclusion. When Charlie Manx and his daughters are transformed into demonic creatures, the story meanders for another ten pages, stretching the horror out to the point where it eventually becomes wearisome.
“Wraith” jumps forward to 1989, where Charlie Manx returns to cart a group of felons and a couple of police straight to their doom: Christmasland. Once there, the children dismember the small band of adults but we don’t give much of a hoot because the characters are rather unsavory to begin with. While Wilson has created some interesting nightmarish imagery, the violence inflicted upon the victims needed to be more chilling. Sure, nobody wants to have a leg sawed off unexpectedly, but the frights should have been more inventive than what Hill and Wilson have dreamed up in “Wraith”.
When the story stops to focus on its two redeeming characters, Chess and Agnes, “Wraith” begins to read like something Hill fans might recognize from his work on “Locke and Key”. Chess is a despondent father whose life is turned upside down after suffering an unimaginable loss. Agnes is a fearless police officer with a strong head on her shoulders and a sarcastic wit. Once the two of them plot their escape from Christmasland the story takes a dramatic turn and the book finally achieves something compelling.
Wilson’s imagery is the stuff of nightmares and he’s done an excellent job bringing the gruesome amusement park known as Christmasland to life. His dead-eyed children are menacing and the larger-than-life constructs and amusement park rides provide a chilling air. Wilson uses thick fog and clouds as a backdrop for most of Christmasland to create a feeling of confinement. While Jay Fotos is one of the best colorists in the business, “Wraith” may have benefitted from simple gray washes to instill a stronger feeling of dread in the artwork.
Though the main story is just too overstuffed to be a satisfactory read, “Wraith” features an inventive first person account of a man who will eventually find his fate in the hands of Charlie Manx. The story is an epilogue told in prose with Wilson’s early American comic strip style artwork placed intermittently across the pages when necessary. The story about a flimflam man cheating his way through the days of the Great Depression is engrossing and contains a gratifying twist that works to close the story on a high note.
“Wraith” has the elements of a good fright fest, but at seven chapters there isn’t enough story to keep things interesting and not enough scares to inspire decent nightmares.
“Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland”
Written by: Joe Hill
Art: Charles Paul Wilson III
Colors: Jay Fotos
Letters: Robbie Robbins
Original Publication Date: November 2013
Pages: 172 pages