Eerie Tales of the House of Mystery

Today on Late to the Party Theater: Chuck discovers that Locke & Key is a terrific horror comic that calls back to the “classics” without feeling like a self-conscious reinterpretation.

In my defense: I’ve been hearing about Locke & Key off and on for years. It’s one of the tentpole comics for IDW with plenty of coverage at comic conventions, it’s won several Eisner awards, it was getting buzz for being turned into a movie or TV series that resulted in an unaired pilot, and I’ve been hearing recommendations from people online and from my boyfriend.

So I had it on the to-read list, and I’d assumed I knew how it was going to play out just based on the premise: a bunch of kids living in an old, unfamiliar family house, discovering magic keys that open mysterious doors, each with its own power. I’d expected another urban fantasy comic, maybe similar to The Unwritten, inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe with some House of Mystery and House of Secrets mixed in.

That would’ve been fine. But what I found when I read the first volume was a lot more compelling and more layered than I’d imagined.

It goes for the slow burn. I’d already plotted out the first issue in my mind: get the kids to the house, one of them discovers the first key, they all get pulled into the mystery, they confront the bad guy, and they set up the rest of the series. But there’s no quick pay-off in the first issue. Writer Joe Hill gradually lets the prologue unfold over the entire first volume, devoting an issue to each of his characters instead of just having them serve as interchangeable protagonists.

It retains the style of the “classic” horror comics. I admit I was turned off by the art of Gabriel Rodriguez at first; it seemed too stylized to work well with the tone that the writing was trying to establish. But after a couple of issues, I grew to realize that it was perfect — the book frequently makes subtle and not-particularly-subtle references to William Gaines and the old EC horror comics, and the art keeps it rooted in that tradition. (In fact, Rodriguez’s art in Locke & Key reminds me of a particular comic artist from the late 70s and early 80s, but I’m drawing a complete blank on the name. Anyone have any ideas?)

It puts a modern spin on several different eras of horror stories. Locke & Key is unabashedly a horror comic, even more than I’d expected it to be — axes to the head, knives to the eyes, attacks with crowbars and bricks, all rendered in splash pages with gouts of blood. But while Hellblazer always seems firmly rooted in the 90s, DC’s horror comics rooted in the 70s, and Tales from the Crypt unmistakably from the 50s, Locke and Key‘s influences seem to span several decades — from gothic (with the creepy old house and the town name of Lovecraft) to modern.

I realize it’s probably bad form to draw comparisons to Stephen King when talking about Joe Hill‘s work, but the greatest achievement of King’s first novels was how well he took traditional horror stories and translated them into contemporary settings. Locke & Key does something similar for comics, but without feeling “millennial.” Looking back at the first few issues of The Sandman, the influences of EC Comics and Berni Wrightson are immediately apparent, and the introduction has the feel of a deliberate reinvention of classic horror. Right out of the gate, Locke & Key seems to acknowledge the influences without letting them become overwhelming. Classic horror comics provide the tone of the story, not the purpose.

Finally, It’s smart. Again, probably because the art grounds it in a heavily stylized, almost cartoonish atmosphere, the writing and plotting can be introspective and realistic without either coming across as mundane or as pretentious. Instead of lurid descriptions of horrific acts of violence, we get matter-of-fact descriptions of them. Instead of monologues or dramatic soliloquies, we get natural, realistic dialogue. Literary allusions — much of the back story revolves around a school production of The Tempest — don’t come across as forced. And while none of the characters is complex enough (so far) to be the focus of an entire story, they all work together well and are given enough depth to keep from collapsing into caricature. Somehow, Hill puts just enough spin on them that they seem to be characters who just happen to fit into a stereotypical role.

At this point, I’ve only gotten through the first issue of the second volume. (Possibly the best single issue of the series I’ve read so far). There’s still twenty-three issues for it all to completely fall apart, or worse, to turn into something as solid-but-predictable as I’d originally expected. For now, though, I’m happy that my first impressions are being proven wrong. And I’m reminded of being a freshman in college, just discovering The Sandman and Hellblazer and learning that there was a whole world outside superhero comics.

Edit: I forgot to mention that he does have a kid who lives in San Francisco call it “Frisco.” But apart from that, it’s all pretty good.