This is a special post for a few reasons. First, as someone who’s loved reading comic books and delighting to the adventures of superheroes since 1986; Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodríguez, and Jay Fotos’ Locke & Key is THE FIRST REAL HORROR COMIC I’ve ever read. I broke brand new genre ground here and it was…an experience. Second, this series came highly recommended by Nancy (half of the awesome twosome Nancy & Kathleen who run the wonderfully geektastic comic blog Graphic Novelty²). Locke & Key is one of Nancy’s all-time favorites and she’s been urging me to read it for ages. I made a lot of excuses because, well I can be a baby with horror stuff sometimes :). But I did it! Lastly, this is special because regular readers will notice Kalie’s been super busy with her PhD work of late so, sadly, that means less time for her to write new content. I decided to write this guest post for her today in celebration of our three year anniversary. Yep, three years ago today was the day we first met! Awwww…let’s mark this special occasion by talking about the gruesome, macabre, and haunting tale of the Locke family shall we??
It took me a little while to figure out how I was going to approach writing this post. I finally mustered my courage and took Nancy’s suggestion to read this series last July. But it’s taken me two months to figure out what I wanted to say here. Why the delay? Basically my problem was I didn’t know how much I could/should reveal about the plot. The series ran from February of 2008 until December of 2013 so there’s a good chance everyone who really wanted to read this has. But I just read it myself!!! And the plot twists and turns had me so hooked! So I’ve decided to reveal as little of the plot as I can and instead focus on what a superhero fan gets out of reading a straight-up horror comic. Is this a feeling I’ll chase? Or is this a one-and-done?
For just a little background (should you be a total Locke & Key newbie like I was), Locke & Key is the story of the Locke family. Rendell, a high school guidance councilor, lives in San Francisco with his wife Nina and their three children – Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. The first issue opens with two disgruntled students, Sam Lesser and Al Grub, following the Locke family to their summer vacation home in Willits where Sam brutally murders Rendell. In the ensuing struggle, Nina is injured but manages to kill Al. Tyler beats Sam unconscious with a brick but Sam survives and is sent to the San Lobo Juvenile Detention Center. After Rendell’s funeral; Nina, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode all relocate to Lovecraft, Massachusetts in an attempt to start a new life and leave the horrors of the past behind. They move into Rendell’s childhood home, Keyhouse, with his brother Duncan living close by. Soon after their arrival Bode, the youngest of the Locke children, begins to interact with the ghostly Lady in the Well and discover magic keys with bizarre paranormal powers hidden around Keyhouse. From there, IT GETS NUTS. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. If not, trust me, you should go read this thing!!!
IDW’s Locke & Key was written by Joe Hill (the author behind the dark fantasy novel Horns (and also the son of horror master Stephen King)) in the most compulsively-readable manner. I devoured the entire series in a few days, rushing to the library to get the next set of volumes as soon as I’d finished the ones I had. I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next! I imagine reading this month-to-month would have been brilliant, giving you time to really savor Gabriel Rodríguez ‘s painstakingly and intimately layered art work. It would also allow you time to go back over the story, again and again, doing your best to slowly unlock the puzzle box nature of the narrative. So part of me wishes I knew about this before and had read it as it came out. (Realistically though, it came out during my seventeen year hiatus of reading comics AND well before I met Kalie so there’s no way I would have read something horror-related before she drug me, kicking and screaming, into this genre (which I now actually enjoy (even if it freaks me out)).) However, I read this whole series in a few days. It was so captivating! Having to wait between issues would have been brutal!
On the subject of “brutal” (he wrote impressed with his own unplanned (yet totally awesome) segue), horror comic books. Gah!!! Let’s take a second to look at the first two pages shall we?
I have been reading comic books and enjoying the adventures of comic book superheroes for thirty-one years and I’ve never seen anything that made me feel like that. It was such a dark, twisted, ominous note to start on. All I could think of as my eyes scanned the beginning of this first issue was the immortal words of legendary anchorman Ron Burgundy, “I immediately regret this decision!” But I trusted Nancy and I wanted to see what so intrigued her. So I pressed on! Then we get to the killing. Should we take a gander at Nina killing Al? Why not?!
What have you gotten me into here Nancy?!? Now I understand the graphic in “Graphic Novelty²” in a whole new light. Yikes! In all seriousness (and yes, if you’re wondering, I have been holding that joke since July (whatever, I’m proud of it)), I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of comic books in my life but I wasn’t anywhere near prepared for Locke & Key. I’m not used to comics feeling like this – dark, haunting, scary – nor comics making me feel like this – unnerved, uncomfortable, and so, so sad. It was a disorienting experience at first. Here was a medium I’ve been enjoying since before I knew how to read and it was making me feel all sorts of feelings I’d never associated with it.
It wasn’t until reading Locke & Key that I realized how singularly focused my comic reading experience is. I’m used to movies, TV shows, and (of course) novels crossing all sorts of genres but I’d never really strayed too far from the superhero spotlight in my comic reading. That means I’m used to people always coming to save the day. I mean, that’s kind of what superheroes do you know? And when death does come for comic book superheroes or those they love, they’re never really dead for long (unless your Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, Bruce Wayne’s parents Thomas and Martha, or…uh, you know, Superman’s whole entire home planet). That’s certainly not the case with horror.
I talk about this often with Kalie. For the horror genre to work, they have to unbalance the scales. There can be no superhero or Ghostbuster coming to save the day. There’s no heavenly force to counter a demonic presence. Human beings are left alone in a world where the darkness overwhelmingly swarms all around them and they have little to no help in dealing with it. This narrative approach certainly doesn’t breed healthy (or helpful) theology or mythology buuuut that really isn’t the horror genre’s goal. The horror genre wants to scare the shit out of you. And it was jarring to have that experience in a comic book!
In Brian K. Vaughn’s introduction to the third volume, “Crown of Shadows,” he writes, “Readers love fantasy, but we need horror. Smart horror. Truthful horror. Horror that helps us make sense of a cruelly senseless world. Locke & Key is all of those things…and somehow, every so often, it’s also really goddamn funny. Now that’s showing off.” He continues, “I once told another writer that while comics can be creepy or unsettling, they’re almost never frightening. Without the benefit of music, sound design, and editing, I think it’s tough for most fiction to elicit genuine fear. But I’ll be damned if there aren’t a few moments in this arc (particularly during the haunting stand-alone coda) that rank right up there with some of the scariest scenes from those early Moore/Bissette/Totleben issues of Swamp Thing.” I whole-heartedly agree with him. Locke & Key is absolutely terrifying at times! While I couldn’t stop reading it, I certainly made a point to not read it right before bed…or to at least put a few issues of Spider-Man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in between Locke & Key and my heading to dreamville.
Regardless of how scary it was at times, Locke & Key wasn’t all horrid, dreadful waves of fear. And regardless of how jarring it was to read a straight horror comic in the beginning, I certainly enjoyed my experience. I’m not certain when exactly (as I was too into the story to take accurate note (but it was sometime around the Shadow Siege)) I found myself really getting into the series. I began to “get” the blend of horror, mystery, and fantasy this story dealt with. I found my rhythm or, rather, I found its rhythm. For as haunting as it is, Locke & Key is also quite exciting, and feels like a dark, mystic fairy tale or something.
In that vein, Locke & Key isn’t something like Sinister, Strangers, or The Blair Witch Project where there’s no hope of help against the darkness. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but the Locke children eventually begin to learn how to use the keys around Keyhouse in a way that has the potential to counter all the mystical darkness plaguing them. It was a brilliant idea! In this world there’s darkness and danger and all of that BUT there’s no Ghostbusters, no Dr. Strange, no anyone coming to save the day. However, unlike most horror stories, this didn’t leave them defenseless in the face of supernatural evil. Rather, they learned how to defend themselves. Like Brian K. Vaughn said in his introduction, this is an important way to use horror – to show how we can slowly learn to understand, counter, and defeat the dark forces that plague us. Given what the Locke family endures, this isn’t speaking just to supernatural forces but real, harrowing personal tragedy, pain, and brokenness. This is a very powerful message – we can learn to triumph over the darkness…or at least match it and have a fighting chance at survival. This is a message the horror genre can convey with particular power given the tone and terror that is its traditional wheelhouse. The emotional juxtaposition of stark fear and stirring hope makes for a vivid (and memorable) combination.
But even with the potential for triumph, Locke & Key never reads like a superhero comic. There are no assurances of victory, no guarantee of a happy ending. And, as with life, there’s loss and pain that can’t be undone by a trip through time or punching the villain really hard in the face. I wasn’t sure what to do with my emotional journey as I neared the end of this incredible series. I felt less exhilaration over where they were at in their battle against the darkness and more…sad for all of them. As I’ve said before, I wasn’t ready for this. Given my previous thirty-one years of experience I’d’ve said comics aren’t supposed to make you feel this way. Yet here I was.
By the end of the final issue in the final volume I was an emotional wreck. As I moved through the final volume, “Omega,” I couldn’t read it fast enough because I wanted to see how it ended BUT I also tried to slow myself down, wanting to savor each and every moment. I’ll admit, I got a little misty-eyed at a few points in the finale. To say but a word about the overarching metaphor of the series (without giving any of the plot away), I loved how effectively they used their central metaphor. Using real demons as horrifying representations of the demons – pain, sadness, hatred, regret, embarrassment – that we lock away inside ourselves is brilliant. As is only natural, we all try to keep those emotional maelstroms under lock and key in our minds and in our hearts. But that’s a difficult thing to do and managing all those parts of ourselves is an authentically heroic quest we all take part in every day.
I wasn’t ready for Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodríguez, and Jay Fotos’ Locke & Key. How could I have been? No matter how much Nancy urged me to read it, I had thirty-one years of superhero exploits coloring my perception of what comic books did and how they operated. But, once I managed my shock and allowed the rhythm of the comic to envelope me, I found something incredibly powerful and surprisingly beautiful. I wasn’t quite the same after reading Locke & Key. The haunting and macabre story of the Locke family will stay with me…but it’s an unsettled feeling that’s worth carrying for the incredible message it holds. Will I be reading more horror comics? I don’t know. I certainly will be looking into more stories written by Joe Hill! But I’m not certain what my future with horror comics will be. Obviously I’ve also learned, once again, Nancy knows what she’s talking about and I should just read everything she suggests.
On a more personal note, I hope you enjoyed this post Kalie! I’m getting it posted with a whole half hour left of September 18th so it’s totally up and ready while it’s still our anniversary. Yay! Happy Anniversary Love :).