By Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW; 2008)

The first foray into comic scripting from author Joe Hill, of 20th CENTURY GHOSTS and HEART-SHAPED BOX fame. The opening scenes of LOCKE AND KEY are somewhat chaotic and confusing, but the narrative gradually sharpens itself into a streamlined tale of terror with the forward drive of a good novel.  Yet this is still very much a graphic novel that excels in visual storytelling, courtesy of the virtuosic illustrations of Gabriel Rodriguez.

The narrative layout is quite complex, and difficult to warm up to, but the story is nonetheless a strong one: the three traumatized Locke children–Tyler, Kinsey and Bode–are taken by their mother to a rural town called Lovecraft(!) in an effort to start a new life.  Their father, a university professor, was killed by a psychotic pupil who’s now interned in an insane asylum.  As for the house the Lockes have moved into, it’s a foreboding mansion filled with doors that, as six-year-old Bode quickly discovers, open into all sorts of strange alternate realities, including one that allows Bode to become a ghost.

But there’s also a malevolent presence afoot.  It’s the unquiet spirit of a woman looking to force her way back onto the mortal plane via a special “Anywhere Key,” and is using both Bode and the crazy guy who started the entire mess to affect that goal.

It all results in a suspenseful account that nicely alternates plot and psychology.  Joe Hill succeeds in fully delineating the traumatic inner worlds of his youthful protagonists while never compromising the story’s forward momentum.  Bode naturally resonates the most; his childhood naiveté is quite winning in contrast to the many screwed-up elders surrounding him, and proves indispensable in unlocking the mansion’s dark secrets.

The psycho on the other hand displays many dial-a-villain tendencies (in particular a plethora of distracting Freddy Krueger-esque wisecracks), but he’s not the true villain.  It’s the vengeful spirit inhabiting the mansion who essays that role, and the character is a mighty strong one; her final incarnation, which sets the stage for a sequel (just so you know, LOCKE AND KEY is a Volume One), is a most unexpected development that impressively demonstrates Mr. Hill’s imaginative fecundity.

Again, the extraordinary artwork of Gabriel Rodriguez is indispensable to LOCKE AND KEY’S impact, but this is Joe Hill’s show all the way.  His evocation of surreal childhood terrors–and a few all-too-real grown-up ones–will resonate with anyone familiar with 20th CENTURY GHOSTS.  Quite simply, few other writers (Hill’s old man Stephen King included) do this sort of thing better, and this volume, flaws and all, is among Hill’s standout works.