It was a very simple sales pitch. It’s the final day of WonderCon and I was at the IDW booth. I had really no intent of picking up a book. I was hoping to talk to some of the sales people, namely one of the people I regularly talk to at cons, AnnaMaria White. While waiting to talk with her, another IDW employee saw me eying the book in front of me. It was Welcome to Lovecraft, the first six issue mini-series in the Locke & Key series, created by the team of writer (and son of Stephen King) Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez. The sales pitch went some thing like this:
“I have sold this first book to people on Friday. They come back and ask for the second book on Saturday and Sunday, the demand the third book.”
Intriguing. Horror books really have never really been my thing. Spawn kinda grabbed me when I was a kid, but nothing really lasting. But what the hell? I had a little bit of cash left so I got it. I started reading it that night.
I have a few expectations when I judge if a book is great. If I read it in one sitting, that is something. If I want to read it again immediately after I finish, that is a good sign. If I find myself emotionally invested, if I want to write on it. Things like that. By time I was little more than halfway through Locke & Key, I had felt everything.
I make no bones about it. Locke & Key is the best book on the stands right now. Since it began in 2008, Locke & Key has consistently brilliant and gripping.
Set in the mysterious town of Lovecraft, MA, the Locke family has recently moved into the family home, the mansion known as Keyhouse. The move is following the tragic murder of their father, Rendall Locke is murdered by a demented former student, Sam Lesser.
The mother, Nina, who was assaulted while Rendall was killed, finds solace in the company of her gay brother-in-law, Duncan and a steady diet of alcohol. Duncan himself hopes to enjoy normal life with his boyfriend, but the reader just hopes to understand the cryptic meaning of why Keyhouse “chose” him. The eldest son, Tyler, the one who stopped Sam after the murder, carries survivor’s guilt, having earlier joked with Lesser, who stated he was going to kill his parents. Tyler, with a laugh, asked Sam to kill his father while he was at it. Kinsey, the middle and only girl, begins to hate herself, feeling like a coward for hiding with their younger brother, Bode while Tyler dealt with Lesser after the murder. And the youngest, Bode, who, while immensely clever, seems to be the most oblivious to the real horrors around him. He merely seeks to escape, and in doing so, begins to unravel the hidden mystery of why his father died, which has something to do with Keyhouse and the many magical keys that lay within it; keys that can turn you into a giant, keys that can literally open your head, keys that can turn you into an animal, turn a boy into a girl, or even allow a living person to become a ghost. But, as Bode soon discovers, the keys can be dangerous and there are people out there, terrible people who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the keys held.
Of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog, never have I come across a book quite like this one. It is dark and it is twisted. The first story alone is filled with murder, deception and graphic violence, mainly at the hands of Sam, who gets his own issue that lays down his history and attempts to show why he is so troubled, as well as why he has been pulled into this sorted affair. There is a sympathy directed at Sam by the reader, who can’t help but feel pity for the young boy. But in his rage, Sam Lesser is nothing short of a monster. It is probably in the character of Sam that Hill’s strength as a writer really shines. Hill makes him a real person, fully formed on the page. He is broken, he is demented, but, as perhaps is true with all humanity, there is still a spark of redemption inside of Sam. As the story progresses from the first, six issue mini-series, Sam’s character begins to evolve, coming from a natural state of betrayal. Any other writer would either destroy such a dark character or awkwardly attempt to change them to fit a role of redemption. Hill understands that villains can act with compassion, but knows that it is all going towards an act of revenge. And, as is the same for the Locke kids, Sam’s revenge is focused on the nefarious and mysterious Dodge, a dark echo from the past and the link from the present Lockes to the previous generation of Locke kids (Rendall and Duncan) and the person who initially sent Sam after Rendall.
The keys held within Keyhouse are what drive the story. Either their discovery moves the story along or simply the need to find them acts as motivation for the majority of the cast. Starting with Bode’s discovery of the Ghost Key in issue one, the Locke family begins to realize that there is more to Keyhouse than meets the eye. And while the first arc is more about Dodge’s attempts to locate the Anywhere key (which can take the holder anywhere with just the turn of the key in a lock), the story is focused on the location of the Omega Key and the Black Door that it opens.
As Dodge says in the first arc, “That’s the thing about children. They always think they are coming in at the beginning of the story, when really, they’re coming in at the end.” That is a powerful statement and one that determines Hill’s storytelling. The reader, from page one, has walked into a fully developed world. It isn’t even until the third arc that you begin to realize how much of the story has been revealed. Entire issues are teased in single panels. Characters that haven’t been introduced are secretly large threads already tied into the stories fabric. That is what a reader demands from the creator: a firm belief that this is heading somewhere.
Joe Hill is an incredible writer. I have yet to delve into his prose work, but if this is any indication, Hill is a writer to be reckoned with. This story is a classic one, combining the dark and cautionary works of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with the modern teenager works like Harry Potter. As Hill has stated, “this is a story about children, but it is not a story for children.” It is the sign of a good writer to create fully formed children as characters. Most writers and viewers are content enough to have stereotypes for kids, but that is nowhere near Locke & Key. Hill remembers that the realities of growing up are just as horrifying as the ghouls of a monster story, and as such, his characters react like real people. Real hopes, real fears against the fictional world of keys and magic. These characters are not invincible, nor do they have a clear understanding of what the keys do. Kinsey, in particular, abuses the power of the keys, at one point being so fed up with her crippling sadness that she uses the Head Key to open her mind and remove her sense of fear and her ability to cry. And like your average teenager, Kinsey fails to realize the power of these emotions. But Hill’s crowning achievement of characters comes in the form of Tyler Locke, who is often overshadowed by the Bode and Kinsey’s over use of the keys. On the surface, Tyler is a big jock, with some hidden sensitivity; a classic teen stereotype. But Hill makes him clever, shows his growth and coming to terms with his role in his father’s death. Whereas this is usually shown as some grand revelation in the last act, Hill plants the seeds of growth throughout the story and allows time to reveal these new traits, just as is true in real life. At the end of it all, that is Hill’s true strength: he brings an expert craft of reality to a world of fantasy.
And of course, the series would be incomplete without co-creator Gabriel Rodriguez. As you have hopefully already seen, Rodriguez is a master artist. Most of the thumbnails shown are covers, which benefit from the extra gloss of printing, but Rodriguez’s true skills can be seen in the most mundane of panels. The art is wonderful. Through his cartoon style, Rodriguez is able to convey very human emotions of fear and loss. Every character is distinct, but still connected. You can see the relational bonds between the Locke boys, specifically Rendall and Tyler. This is a story that spans several generations of Lockes and there is a definite connection between the men of the family, as well as the various people who have come in and out of the story. Dodge, in particular, changes shape so many times that it is important for him to be immediately noticeable. Rodriguez is really at the top of his game with this book. As I said with Hill and the seemingly vast universe this story inhabits, continuity is key and Rodriguez is able to keep everything together, as well as adjust his style to fit the story’s needs. This is a book that shows the insides of a teenager’s mind, holds many dark creatures and even spends one issue in the style of Calvin & Hobbes. Gabriel Rodriguez delivers top notch work on all accounts (especially the C & H story, which is clearly done with love and dedicated to creator Bill Watterson on the final page).
This is the book to be reading right now. The series is planned out to be SIX six issue mini-series and the fourth just finished, with book five “Clockworks” beginning in June. For the readers who have kept up, the final chapters of this book are coming. The book is entering the third and final act, with the end of book four “Keys to the Kingdom” wholly shaking up the order of the world. To those who haven’t read the series, this is the time to hop in. When all is said and done, this is going to be a book that will be remembered.
All artwork is courtesy of IDW Publishing.