Heads up, creeps: this article contains (vague) spoilers for the IDW comic series Locke & Key. Want to keep the surprise? The first five volumes of this comic are FREE with a ComiXology Unlimited subscription!
From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
If you’ve seen the trailer for Locke & Key, you already know the premise: after the death of their father, the Locke family relocates to their ancestral home, which hides magic keys of incredible power and dark forces that seek them. What you might not know, however, is how long fans have been awaiting an adaptation of this book. In 2014, Universal announced plans to turn the book into a film series. When that was cancelled, Fox picked up the rights to make a TV show. When that was also cancelled, Hulu acquired them. Then, because one of these creators clearly pissed of a witch, even that series got axe. For fans, that’s one hell of an emotional roller coaster, but they never gave up hope on seeing the series come to light. With the series finally coming to Netflix this Friday, we at NOFS got to wondering: what kept those fans hoping through every roadblock? What is the staying power of Locke & Key?
Of course, every fan will answer that differently, but one thing they’ll all agree on is Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork. Rodriguez is a master of horror on the page, whether he’s creating subtle, shadowy shapes or hallucinogenic, Lovecraftian monstrosities. But even more impressive than his designs is the way he uses the comic medium to build physical space. For example, there are scenes in which the split between panels is also a wall in the house, separating a story beat as well as the rooms themselves. Rodriguez is hyper-aware of the placement of his characters, allowing not just for a smooth flow of action, but for some great “there’s something behind you” moments. Any good visual horror storyteller knows a good scare is just a matter of perspective, and Rodriguez is an absolute titan in giving the reader exactly that.
And now, dear reader, comes my final warning for vague spoilers. To get to the other part of why I believe Locke & Key has earned its fanbase, I’ve got to tell you a little bit more than what’s on the dust jacket. If you’re extremely anti-spoiler, now is the time to read the book yourself and come back to this piece. It’ll be here when you do.
“[Gabriel] Rodriguez is a master of horror on the page, whether he’s creating subtle, shadowy shapes or hallucinogenic, Lovecraftian monstrosities.”
Back already? Excellent, let’s talk story. Rendell Locke, husband to Nina and father to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, has been murdered. After grieving his loss, his family moves to Lovecraft, Massachusetts, hometown of Rendell and location of Keyhouse. Keyhouse is the ancestral home of the Locke family, an enchanted place whose magic takes the form of several intricately designed keys. These keys, made of a “whispering iron,” gift the wielder reality-defying powers, but only if the user is under eighteen. The Locke kids discover the power of the keys and, eventually, the terrible entity that wants to use that power. As they battle the entity, they learn a terrifying truth. When he was younger, Rendell Locke made use of the keys himself, doing things that were sometimes heroic, sometimes whimsical, and sometimes downright dangerous. Everything bad that has happened to the Lockes, including Rendell‘s murder, is a result of what he used the keys to do.
Let’s step away from the story for a moment to recognize a truth about horror. That is, so much of the genre is rooted in the past. What are ghosts but memories of people who are no longer with us? What are monsters but a rehashing of humanity’s primal struggle against the natural world? Why do you think Lovecraft named his horrific nightmare deities “the Old Ones?” So, too, is the story of Locke & Key rooted in the past. However, there’s a key (ha!) difference in how Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez handle that past, and it’s partially in this that we find the power of the saga.
In many horror stories, the past that haunts our protagonists is the direct result of their own actions. Had Frank Cotton not solved the puzzle box in Hellraiser, things would’ve gone better for him. In It: Chapter 2, Pennywise returns because the Loser’s Club failed to kill him. Hell, there’s an entire horror franchise with the not-so-subtle title I Know What You Did Last Summer. But what guilt can you assign to the Locke children? They didn’t start this fight, they were born into it. It’s said best by the villainous Dodge toward the end of Volume One. “You can’t understand,” she says to Bode, youngest of the Lockes, “Because you’re reading the last chapter of something, without having read the first chapters. […] Kids always think they’re coming into a story at the beginning, when usually they’re coming in at the end.”
Therein lies the staying power, and supreme horror, of Locke & Key. Whereas many horror heroes are the Kings and Queens of their story, the Locke kids are pawns, entering a losing game that was started before they were born. Theirs is a horror of legacy, a curse passed down through blood. It’s a relatable horror, familiar to anyone who has had to deal with the consequences of their parents’ actions. In a broader sense, we can liken it to the horrors a generation might face after the mistakes of a previous one (Google “news” for more details). But we shouldn’t do so lightly. Because in making that comparison, we open the door to a much larger dimension of terror. We discover a question that is much darker in possibility and infinitely more horrifying in its scope: If we’re in trouble because of someone else’s past, what might we be doing to yet another person’s future?
“Whereas many horror heroes are the Kings and Queens of their story, the Locke kids are pawns, entering a losing game that was started before they were born.”
In the meantime, let me know your thoughts on this classic horror comic. Are you a Locke & Key fanatic? What other horror comics would you like to see on our site? Then, check out our other time-centric horror content for February, because all month long, we’re talking about humankind’s most mortal of enemies. And for even more great content, plus all the best horror reviews and interviews, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.