The end of a month of scary recommended readings had to go to my favorite horror comic currently on the stands, and one that I think will stand the test of time as one of the greatest horror comics ever. Locke & Key, from writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez, is a horror comic in a grand sense; its not just about the monster under the bed, but the horror of loss, of growing up, of betrayal. It has aspects of a coming of age story, as most of the principal cast are kids and young adults, but the older characters still experience their own growth. And its those characters that keep you coming back; as good as the plots are, and they're very good, Hill has crafted some of the most memorable characters I've read in a long time, and your heart soars and breaks with them.
I first discovered Locke & Key because I had read Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and was incredibly impressed. It was amazing to see such a perfectly crafted first novel, and one that was so damn scary. I read a lot of horror, in novel, short story, and comic form, and to read a book that actually gives me the heebie-jeebies is quite a feat. And to see that this guy was starting a horror comic was something I had to check out.
Locke & Key opens with the Locke family returning to their family's ancestral home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts (no, nothing foreboding in that name at all). The family is shaken by the recent murder of their father and husband, Rendell, at the hands of one of his students, Sam Lesser. Nina, Rendell's wife, has taken her three children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode to start fresh at Keyhouse, which is currently only inhabited by Rendell's younger brother, Duncan. Or so it seems, because Keyhouse has many occupants, and they're not entirely human.
The Locke kids are the central characters of Locke & Key, and the central story is really about them growing up while discovering the secrets of Keyhouse. When the reader first meets them, each of the kids is traumatized by the death of their father in different ways. Over the course of the series, each grow as people, and Ty and Kinsey, who are both high school students versus young Bode who is in grammar school, have to grow up, not just to face the normal challenges of life, but to face the challenges of Keyhouse.
Tyler Locke, using the Giant Key
The secret of Keyhouse is, not surprisingly, keys. But not just the kind of keys you have on your keychain. Each of the keys has a special power, given to them by their composition from something called Whispering Iron. The keys are a wonderful device, allowing Hill to solve problems or introduce new plot elements without resorting to anything outside the world of the series because this extraordinary element is already set. Keys include the Ghost Key, which allows you to leave your body and float as a ghost, the Anywhere Key, that's door opens to anywhere you need to go, the Head Key, which opens the head of the person it is used on and allows personality traits and memories to be added or removed, The Gender Key, that allows you to swap genders, and the Omega Key, which opens a very special, and very evil, door.
When it comes to writing about series that are horror and mystery based, it's hard to do without spoiling anything, something I have commented about before. With Locke & Key it is even harder to do, because the mythology of the series is so brilliantly and gradually pieced out that the reader doesn't get all the answers until the fifth volume, and even then I think there might be some surprises left for use in the sixth and final. But suffice it to say, the story is not limited to Lovecraft in the present. Stories flashback to the American Revolution, to Rendell Locke in his own teen years, and the two one shots, Guide to the Known Keys and Grindhouse, show different previous generations of Lockes.
While I can't talk to much about plot, I can talk about characters, and that's where Hill shines. Each of the Locke kids are phenomenal, three dimensional characters. Tyler, the eldest son, is a boy at the end of his adolescence and preparing to see where life will take him. Haunted at the beginning of the series by an off hand, angry comment that he made to Sam Lesser he believes caused the young man to kill his father, Ty arrives in Lovecraft by far the most detached. But over the course of the series, he not only grows out of that shell and begins to connect with people, but he takes up the role of guardian of his family, supporting his mother who has sunk into alcoholism after the death of her husband, and protecting his siblings from the dark forces that seek the Omega Key.
Kinsey, the only girl in the family and a few years younger than Ty, starts out trying to live life as if nothing has happened. But with the realization of the magic in Keyhouse and the dark events of the end of the first mini-series and beginning of the second, Kinsey makes a decision to use the Head Key to get rid of the emotions that hurt. For much of the series, this is what defines Kinsey, who is a track runner, and who runs from facing her own emotions. Without fear, she is headstrong, and more free to sharing the knowledge of the keys with her friends. Kinsey's growth has a lot to do with realizing that the bad emotions, the fear, the tears, the anger, are as much a part of life as the good ones.
Bode, the youngest of the Lockes, is only six years old. His sense of wonderment at the discovery of all the magic that lives in Keyhouse is different from that of his older siblings. For Bode, it's all wonderment. Even though it comes with darkness, like mysterious voices in the Wellhouse or shadow demons, its still fun to use the Ghost Key and sail around the house, or to get a peak at someone's thoughts with the Head Key. His sense of wonderment is charming, and often the spot of light in an otherwise dark book. He still has to grown up, though, and events at the end of the series might have just placing Bode as the one who will save everyone.
The cast around the Locke kids are all equally well developed characters. Ad the point of view shifts from character to character issue-to-issue, supporting characters get their moments to shine. Nina, the Locke's mother, is a strong woman who was broken by the death of her husband and the attack made on her, and is having a hard time putting the pieces back together. Duncan, Rendell's brother, is a gentle, quiet artist who loves his family and tries his best to support them while surrounded by tragedy. We also get to see various townsfolk in Lovecraft, including Ellie, one of the few surviving members of the Keepers of the Keys (Rendell's friends) and her son, Rufus, who is developmentally disabled but who has certain special knowledge that helps his new friend, Bode. And finally, there's Zack. Or Dodge, if you prefer. Or the Girl in the Wellhouse. Dodge is the villain of the piece, and I'll let you discover exactly what he's about yourself.
The suspense that builds its way through Locke & Key is done so slowly that you can start reading it and feel fine, but by the end of the issue you realize you've broken out in a cold sweat and gooseflesh. Watching the monsters come after the Lockes, whether they are Sam Lesser, Dodge, or shadow monsters, is part of it, and Hill is a master of the craft here. But it's not all monsters. While Hill and Rodriguez don't avoid violence and gore, and use them to great effect, it's the psychology of horror that makes something really scary. The slow build as Dodge's plan to find the Omega Key reaches fruition is a different kind of scary. Watching Dodge worm his way into the Locke family's life, watching him play with them, it's creepy. Monsters are what we make of them, after all, and sometimes to scariest ones are just people. Although I'm not saying Dodge is entirely human either. You'll have to read to find out.
Gabriel Rodriguez, artists on Locke & Key, is one of the most impressive artists I've seen in comics in recent years. Hi style is distinct and he falls into that category of artists that I love: he draws amazing expressive characters. Faces and body language are important in comics, and in horror comics even moreso, since what is not said is as important as what is said. Each of the Locke kids are made even more real by how perfectly captured they are in each panel by Rodriguez. And his talent for monsters, for shadow demons, for the things in the heads of people when the Head Key is used, is second to none. When we first see the Head Key used, and see into Bode's head, it's an amazing scene, and I don't know how much of what was in there was in Hill's original script and how much was crafted just by Rodriguez, but in the hands of a lesser artist, it could have been just cute or amusing; Rodriguez makes it jawdropping. Rodriguez also does an incredible job of altering his style to fit the story. The Grindhouse one-shot, a classic, gory gangster/revenge yarn, is grittier. And the first issue of the fourth volume, Keys to the Kingdom, is dedicated to Bill Watterson, and features panels drawn in the style of his classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and as someone who loved that strip, the homage is perfect and loving. Every time I open an issue of Locke & Key I don't know what I'm going to get, but I just know it's going to be excellent.
With one final mini-series left chronicling this generation of the Locke family, you still have time to catch up with the series. There's something in this series for everyone, whether it's a well crafted family drama or a jump at a particularly scary moment. Come on, step into Keyhouse and see what's waiting for you.
There are five volumes of Locke & Key available in hardcover, and the first three have also been released in paperback. In order, they are Welcome to Lovecraft, Head Games, Crown of Shadows, Keys to the Kingdom, and Clockworks. The final mini-series, Omega, will begin coming out in single issue in November.