After 5 years and 40 densely imaginative issues Locke & Key is drawing to a close on Wednesday. And I'm going to lose my monthly dose of literary smack.
So in tribute to what has been for my money the best book on the racks for over the last half decade. I want to do a little something different. Rather than look back on the highlights of the run I think I'll let you discover them for yourself.
But Locke & Key also offers a puzzle of another sort. Hill is a novelist and has peppered Locke & Key with all sorts of literary references. Some are fun tributes, others offer hints to the mechanics of Hill’s world offered nowhere else in the text, some might hint at whatever end is coming tomorrow. Here are a few of the more prominent ones.
H.P. Lovecraft: Locke & Key follows three siblings, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, who move with their Mother from California to their ancestral home of Lovecraft, Maine in the wake of a family tragedy. There they find themselves heir to their family legacy, a series of reality bending keys. If you are in a horror story there are few worse ideas than moving to a place called Lovecraft Maine. Perhaps only Satansberg, OH and That-Place-Where-All-Those-Camp-Counselors-Were-Butchered, TN can compete.
The Lovecraft influence actually lay dormant for most of Locke & Key’s run as the book developed its own intricate mythology. But the Lovecraft DNA reared its head with a vengeance in the first issue of the Clockworks arc, “The Lockesmith’s Son”. Revealing (via a fantastic Drag Me To Hell reference) that the mysterious Black Door buried beneath the ancestral Locke home leads to the Lovecraftian Gods, the Great Old Ones. Making it approximately the 798th portal to the Great Old Ones that protagonists in horror fiction have stumbled upon.
I have mixed feelings about Hill making the Lovecraft connection explicit- well explicter. On one hand it’s not the first time Hill has used the device, his novella “Voluntary Committal” hinged on a similar reveal. But as Lovecraft himself noted, “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" and ironically Lovecraftian horror has become a very well known quantity. Hill’s homebrewed mythology was up until that point not. Which brings us to…
N0S4A2: In Hill’s latest (and absolutely phenomenal) novel, N0S4A2 the Locke Family makes a cameo on a list of Inscapers. N0S4A2 was an ambitious book, among other things it ties Hill’s previous work into one cohesive universe using the concept of Inscaping.
To simplify, Inscaping is the power to make imaginary things real, or to be more precise, the ability to bring the things inside of your head into the real world, whether they’re actual physical things or abstract concepts (such as when Kinsey Locke first removed and then imprisoned her capacity for grief and fear). Hill uses the Head Key to literalize the process, which allows characters to physically open the mind and access whatever is within it.
Inscapers can be benevolent or malevolent but all eventually pay a great price for the use of their ability. The Lockes are no exception.
Bill Waterson: In one of the oddest stand alone issues, the first issue of Keys To The Kingdom, “Sparrow”, found Gabriel Rodriguez drawing almost the entire issue in the style of Bill Waterson. It tells the story of youngest Locke sibling, Bode, as he uses the keys to explore the wilderness, recruiting a flock of sparrows in the fight against the evil stalking the family.
What at first seems like an out of left field choice pays off brilliantly, utilizing Waterson’s signature style to bring the New England winter woods to starkly beautiful life. A simple, unshowy mastery and respect for nature and wildlife were always a hallmark of Watterson’s art. It’s put to beautiful use here, as is the emotional transparency of Watterson’s signature character style.
But the true brilliance of the reference comes at the end of the story. After all what is such a situation for a child than one of Calvin’s daydreams come to life, with the stakes risen to terrible proportions.
Ray Bradbury: Bradbury is one of Hill’s biggest, yet least cited influences. Hill has played with Bradburyian conventions before. His first published collection, 20th Century Ghosts, featured the short story “Last Breath” which could have come straight out of The October Country. He also contributed “By The Silver Water Of Lake Champlain” to the collection of Ray Bradbury tributes, Shadow Show.
The Locke & Key standalone “Open The Moon” finds Hill once again trying on Bradbury’s voice for size (the issue is dedicated to him). Exploring Bradbury’s style at his most wistful, “Open The Moon” tells the story of a Locke ancestor’s attempt to use the keys to create a refuge for his terminally ill son.
The story is true to Bradbury’s voice, paying tribute to his singular ability to blend whimsy and sentiment with melancholy, to take the awareness of the omnipresence of death and to use fantasy to disarm it.
The Tempest: But by far the text most central to Locke & Key is The Tempest. The image of the Shakespeare play performed with real magic is introduced in “Intermission” the first issue of Headgames, arguably the best issue of the entire run. It’s an event returned to time and again, the lynchpin that sealed the fate of the Locke family.
Echoes of The Tempest can be seen across Locke & Key. Like The Tempest, Locke & Key is about a child (or in this case children) kept in ignorance of their legacy by their parents. It also doesn’t take much to connect The Tempest’s magical character Ariel, sealed in a pine, to the main antagonist of Locke & Key the demonic Dodge who begins the story sealed in a well.
But I am most interested in how The Tempest might hint at the ending of Locke & Key. The Tempest ends with Prospero, a practicing sorcerer, drowning his book of spells. Given the handy grotto beneath Keyhouse, where several of the principles are now trapped, it’s possible that the story might end with The Locke children drowning their keys.
However, it is possible that another, darker, meaning is hinted at by the reference to The Tempest. After all among the play’s most famous lines is the phrase, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”