The Price of Wonder – Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Some great stories leap out at you from the first page, grabbing you by the heart and screaming for your attention. Others grow on you slowly, creeping into your brain word by word until you realise that the thing you were once vaguely enjoying has become so rich, so compelling that you can’t let it go.

Locke & Key, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s comic book series of magic, mystery and dark deeds, is one of the latter.

That Growing On You Feeling

I wasn’t completely taken by Locke & Key when I read the first volume. It was perfectly decent, in the way of many other comics that have combined strange fantasy with a modern setting since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But it didn’t seem like much more than that.

Still, I’d heard great things about this book, and I found the second volume in my local library. I read some more, and somewhere in my own hidden depths something clicked. This was a dark, fascinating puzzle of a story, with compelling characters and beautiful art. This was a thing I really wanted to read.

Wonder and Horror

Locke & Key is the story of the Locke children – teenagers Tyler and Kinsey Locke, and their younger brother Bode. After their father’s brutal murder, they move with their mother to an old New England house. There they find something strange – a series of keys with magical powers, that can open the mind and free the spirit, but that can also bring great darkness.

Because while the Lockes are good people, they aren’t the only ones seeking out the keys. A darker force is at work, one that brings horror and betrayal in its wake. As the Locke children try to come to terms with their loss, while also exploring the wonder of the keys, terrible events start to unfold around them.

OK, I know that all sounds vague, but I’m doing it on purpose. Part of the joy of these books is watching events play out in surprising and compelling ways. I really don’t want to give anything away.

Everything at a Price

One of the central themes of Locke & Key is the consequence of actions, the price paid not just by the people who make choices but by those around them. The children’s mother has coped with her husband’s death by drinking away her sorrows, but this is destroying her remaining relationships. The exploration of magic brings wonder, but also unleashes darkness. And as the background of the story creeps into the light, it becomes clear that everything that is happening happens for a reason, a consequence of other decisions in the key house’s past.

Locke & Key is a beautiful thing. The characters and deep, nuanced and complex. The art is both dynamic and characterful. The plot is full of mystery and suspense. Sure, it’s no Sandman, but neither is it another Sandman wannabe. It’s a dark, brooding tale in its own right. Something unsettling and yet uplifting.

I’m on the fifth volume out of six now. Whether things end well or badly for Lockes, I expect to be gripped right through to the end.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – the good sort of wtf

It’s not often that I get to the end of a book and don’t know what to think or feel. Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation, the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy, achieves that, in a good way.

Annihilation is a tricky book to describe. It’s probably fantasy, maybe horror, with what looks like a contemporary setting. Narratively, it’s the story of an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a part of the world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply. Sent to explore the area, the expedition has its own strange rules meant to combat the madness of Area X. Except those rules are themselves disorienting and dehumanising.

The story is told through the unreliable narrative of the expedition’s nameless biologist, and portrays her response to the bewildering nature of Area X and the disintegration of the people around her. Or possibly her descent into madness. Or possibly both. It’s hard to tell. And along the way, she gets to grips with her own identity and sense of purpose.

I’m told that H P Lovecraft’s horror writing created stories in which even smart people could convincingly be over-whelmed and destroyed, because the forces arrayed against them were just too much for anyone to cope with. That’s how Annihilation feels. The biologist is smart, but from the outset Area X is so strange that there’s a real tension around whether she can survive the expedition, and how it will affect her.

If you watched any of the TV show Lost, you’ll probably remember hitting a point where you realised that the island just didn’t make sense, and probably never would. Annihilation is like that, except that it feels like the lack of coherence is a deliberate ploy by the author, not the result of a TV production throwing madness at the screen and praying that it would make sense.

To quote a speech from one of my favourite films (and please excuse the f-bombs), feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a sane response to a fucked up situation. That’s what this book portrays, and it evokes it incredibly well.

Annihilation isn’t hard work in the sense of being dense or massively long. But its strange natures requires a willingness to let go of your assumptions about how a story will pan out and how a fantastical world will be presented. It’s fascinating. It’s dark. It’s something I want more of, and I don’t even know why. If you like weird things, then give it a go.