Long form horror is a tricky thing to do. Horror, and terror is based on surprise, on the shock of something you weren’t expecting... Or the dread of knowing something terrible is up ahead, but secretly hoping what was going to come to pass doesn’t. That’s why most horror movies devolve into silly sequelitis, or focus more on wracking up creative kills than true scares.
Comic books, of course, make that even harder because they don’t have the luxury of the reveal. With movies and TV, you can cut from one shot to another, revealing that the killer was right behind our hero the whole time, using visuals (and music of course) to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. Comic books don’t have that luxury, as the reader - as famously described by Scott McCloud - controls the pace of what they are reading. You’re the director (or Editor, really) of the horror movie you’re “watching” in a comic, which is why so many horror comics ultimately fall flat: they aren’t scary.
Gory, sure. Filled with horror tropes, absolutely. But there have been very few legitimately terrifying comic books in the history of the medium. Of all of those books, in terms of actual terror, I would put Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key at the very top of the heap.
A large part of what makes Locke & Key work, where many other books have failed is through Hill and Rodriguez’s now familiar repetition of panels, that almost plays like a “Name 10 Things Different About This Picture!” game at a bar. A character sits in the same place for three panels, and in the forth... Something is wrong. Something is off. And it isn’t until far too late that you, the reader, and the character in the book realize what’s going on. It’s a way of controlling the reading experience, when previously it was impossible to do so in such an effective way.
Can a reader pick up an issue of Locke & Key and circumvent this? Heck yeah. Your eye could certainly skip ahead, or you could even flip to the end, and read it backwards, destroying the surprise. But the team have come closer to repeating not the experience of watching a horror movie, but the feeling of watching a horror movie better than anyone else has in the comic book medium.
I’m bringing this up because this week sees the release of Locke & Key: Clockworks #6, the last book in the penultimate Locke & Key miniseries. The last one is Omega, which wraps up the story of the Locke family (along with two one-shots that will come out throughout the next year or so), though not Keyhouse. So with only six issues left, and several trades before this, the big question is not, “Are we invested in the story of the Locke family?” because if you’ve been reading this book... You are. It’s whether this still works as a horror book?
The answer is, thankfully, yes. I don’t know how much is in Hill’s scripts versus Rodriguez’s art, and it doesn’t really matter - but the team does a brilliant job in this issue of ratcheting up the horror not through surprise, but through the creeping dread I mentioned above. There’s an intense propulsion in particular to the first half of this issue that makes it play like a particularly blood-soaked action movie, while the second half is mostly the resolution, as emotional as anything the book has done before.
But the most surprising thing about this issue is that visually, the book revisits not just several locations we’ve been in before, but framing. And this is - no pun intended - the key to this issue: like most of the Clockworks mini-series, it’s about memory and the past, so i would make sense that Rodriguez would frame certain scenes exactly the same as scenes we’ve read before in the various previous mini-series. It’s the sort of move that demands you go back through your old issues of Locke & Key for reference and clues, sure; but it also heightens the tension of memory, knowing that the climactic events that happen here have repercussions for decades to come.
To bring it back around to what we were talking about at the beginning, if there’s any move tougher to pull off than the horror sequel, it’s the horror prequel. If repetition lessens any pretense of horror, explanation straight up destroys it. There’s nothing less terrifying than giving your merciless killing machine a sympathetic back-story, and having various winky call-outs to later entries in the series. It smacks of desperation, rather than creativity.
Happily, Clockworks side-steps all of that, and a lot of the reason why is because the series (maxi-series now) has always pulled from the past, and how it will affect the Locke family in the future, since the very first issue. Here, we’re learning just how deep and tragic that past is, and how the cycle won’t be broken without tremendous sacrifice and heroism on the part of all the characters involved. There’s even a moment late in the issue I won’t spoil (heck, I won’t spoil anything for you guys, so sorry spoiler-hunters) that underscores all of this, as an innocuous object becomes perhaps the - excuse me again - key to the whole series.
Rather than detracting from the main storyline, Clockworks enhances it to the Nth degree, ratcheting up the tension, the emotion, and yes, the horror in preperation for the last entry in the series. Omega can’t get here soon enough.
Locke & Key: Clockworks #6 hits comic book stands from IDW on May 16th!