Lock & Key
Reviewed by John Hayward
With the recent publication of the sixth and final collected volume of “Locke & Key,” it’s possible for a new reader to sit down and devour the whole story at once. The meal comes highly recommended.
Written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, “Locke & Key” is a spectacular exercise in dark fantasy that could only truly work in the graphic novel format chosen by its creators. Actually, that statement might be put to the test soon, because there is once again talk of a television series adaptation; a previous attempt by Fox TV was unwisely scuttled in favor of the ill-fated “Alcatraz.” The resemblance between some of the actors in that doomed pilot and the characters they played was downrighteerie. Hopefully the next casting director to take a crack at the material can do as well.
For the moment, then, “Locke & Key” exists as a set of six extremely handsome hardcover graphic novels, a quality format that shows off Rodriguez’ beautiful artwork to dazzling effect. He has a particular gift for making fantastic subject matter look every bit as real and believable as the ordinary people who encounter it, and he’s a wizard with facial expressions. It’s well worth the cost to get these books in their top-shelf hardcover format.
The reason “Locke & Key” works so perfectly as a graphic novel is that it uses the conventions and tropes of the format, up to and including a dash of super-heroics, as part of the story. It’s an adventure that must be undertaken by children, because the magical forces our heroes encounter are entirely invisible to adults. Comic books are an important part of the way children see the world – a point made explicitly with a few of the young protagonists of “Locke & Key.” Experiencing the story in a comic-book format helps readers understand the perspective of the main characters.
The Locke family of the title consists of a woman recently widowed after the murder of her schoolteacher husband by a disturbed student, and her three children – two teenagers and a grade-school boy. They move back to an old family estate known as the Keyhouse, located in the ominously named Lovecraft County. Both the house and the county live up to their names as the story unfolds.
The Locke children discover that their strange old house is a fortress containing a set of magical keys, each with a different supernatural power. The house is also a prison for a malevolent entity that first appears as a beautiful young woman trapped in an enchanted well, but soon reveals itself to be a creature of delirious evil, with a fascinating backstory.
A great deal of “Locke & Key” involves learning the secrets of the past, particularly from the high-school days of the Lockes’ slain father… because the Number One rule of magic is that adults cannot use it, perceive it, or remember their encounters with it. Horrible things happened decades ago at the Keyhouse, but everyone involved either died, or grew up and forgot what happened. In the modern day, a new generation of Lockes is challenged to find all the keys and harness their powers do battle with the horror they have accidentally unleashed, without being able to count on much help from the oblivious adult world.
The story unfolds at a terrific pace, with one shocking twist after another as both the current crisis and the deadly misadventure of the previous generation are explored in tandem. In fact, there’s even a third layer of history, explored largely through text inserts at the end of each chapter, which reveal how the magic keys were created centuries ago.
The story has a wonderful sense of whimsy, as some of the keys have powers that would not be out of place in “Alice in Wonderland” – for example, one key allows you to unlock your own head, to pluck ideas and emotions out of your mind. You can even put the ideas in bottles, in case you need them again later. Many early chapters of the story are comical adventures that follow the Locke kids and their young friends horsing around with the magic keys, having fun as they learn how these amazing mystic items work.
But this is a work of dark fantasy, with even a dash of cosmic horror, and it plays for keeps. As the stakes get higher, and the enemy’s true nature is revealed, the Lockes encounter terrifying adversaries and suffer agonizing losses. In other words, they become heroes, and that process is not painless. It’s a testament to Hill’s gifts for character and narrative that the early fun passages give way to a stomach-dropping sense of free fall as the danger escalates, and we realize just what these kids are up against. Their adversary definitely has a sense of humor, but it is entirely devoid of whimsy.
The strongest criticism that could be made of the story is that its first five-and-a-half volumes do such a fantastic job of building the threat that its resolution feels like a wee bit of a letdown, although the final pages are immensely satisfying. It took a long time for Hill and Rodriguez to complete this story, and it probably took a bit of self-discipline to end it where and how they did. Anyone who loves a good horror-fantasy story should abandon all restraint and pick up the full six-volume set of “Locke & Key” immediately.
“John Hayward is the senior writer at Human Events magazine, and a contributor on and technology issues to various websites. He is the author of ‘Persistent Dread,’ a collection of short horror fiction available in ebook format from Amazon.com.”