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Saturday, December 6th, 2008
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Locke and Key

by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

The Telltale Heart

A review by Chris A. Bolton

Locke and Key is the story of the Locke family, a fractured unit trying to cope in the aftermath of a violent tragedy. When the patriarch, Rendell, is murdered by a couple of unhinged students, the surviving family members move to the small town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where Rendell and his brother grew up in a large mansion called Keyhouse. The three kids -- Tyson, Kinsey, and Bode -- struggle to deal with the usual difficulties of moving to a new town and school, along with their individual reactions to their father's murder.

Keyhouse has its own mysteries, beginning with a series of locked doors that open into rooms beyond our world. The youngest child, Bode, discovers one such door that allows him to leave his corporeal form and wander unseen as a ghost. He also hears a voice calling to him from the bottom of a well -- and in a story written by Stephen King's son, that just can't be a good thing.

Joe Hill hit the bestselling jackpot with his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, but I was infinitely more impressed with his terrific short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. Hill connected with the beating heart of his tales of the fantastic, transforming them from mere "horror stories" into sagas of the human condition. While I found that human identification unfortunately lacking in Hill's novel, Locke and Key succeeds in effortlessly transporting his gifts to the comic form.

There has been a rash of novelists jumping on the comic bandwagon in the past few years -- including bestsellers like Brad Meltzer and Jodi Picoult -- with dubious success. Prose and comics are such different media that the strengths a writer possesses in one form don't necessarily translate to the other. Hill, however, is clearly a comics fan who understands the medium and utilizes its visual power to the fullest potential.

Consider the masterful four-page sequence in the first chapter when the oldest Locke child, Tyler, sits in the hallway outside his father's wake. He barely moves from his seat on a bench against the left wall, and the angle remains unchanged in each panel, allowing the reader to absorb Tyler's stillness and giving even the slightest action a greater charge. Different people visit Tyler, sitting next to him, uttering inanities as he tries to process the guilt and agony of his father's murder. Tyler doesn't even speak for the first two pages, and his only movements are the occasional dropping and raising of his head -- but in that minimalist approach, Hill does an excellent job of communicating Tyler's emotional isolation and inability to cope with the present (he appears to be staring out the hall window toward the Golden Gate Bridge -- presumably, envisioning the escape it offers to someplace, probably anyplace, else). Shortly thereafter, Tyler recalls an incident from when he was younger and overheard his parents in their bedroom. We see the older Tyler -- still sitting on the bench -- watching the memory of his younger self creeping down the hallway toward his parents' bedroom. Crucial elements of the plot are being laid before us, but they go largely unnoticed while we focus on Tyler's reactions both then and now.

This is the sort of thing for which the comics medium is ideally equipped, the kind of scene that could not exist in prose (it would simply be a straight-up flashback without the layering of images from different time periods) and would even be difficult to pull off in film. Coming only a few pages into the book, it perfectly displays Hill's grasp of the medium.

Hill is ably supported by Gabriel Rodriguez, an artist who has previously worked on CSI comics -- a job I can only imagine to be utterly thankless. Rodriguez wields a skillful line -- somewhat of a cross between Rick Geary and Chris Bachalo -- making his characters believable and cartoonish in equal measure. It is a perfect complement in that, like Hill's writing, it combines the human and the fantastic to create a compelling hybrid.

Welcome to Lovecraft is a gripping and exciting beginning to what may ultimately be an epic story. Hill draws us into his series through the characters and storytelling, creating an emotional investment that guides us over the occasional bumps in his plot. You may find the girl in the well a tad too reminiscent of The Ring, and the homicidal loner who gets revenge on his guidance counselor comes straight out of the work of Hill's father -- not to mention the thudding obviousness of a town actually named "Lovecraft" -- but these are forgivable lapses in an otherwise first-rate work. Locke and Key is a striking comics debut for Hill, and the most impressive mainstream comic series of the year.

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