Locke & Key: Small World
Writer: Joe Hill
Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez
Colours: Jay Fotos
Letters: Robbie Robbins
Editor: Chris Ryall
A review by Stephanie Pouliotte
The third one-shot of the series, Locke & Key: Small World is part of what will eventually become the seventh trade paperback, Locke & Key: The Golden Age — along with Open the Moon and Grindhouse, which were printed during the original run. The Locke & Key monthly ended in 2013 and though the series was primed for TV with a well-received pilot in 2011, Fox didn’t move forward with a show. It isn’t until recently that IDW announced it would pursue a TV series on its own, but storytellers Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez never really left the eerie New England manor in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, or the mysterious Locke family — keepers of a set of unusual keys that unlocks a thrilling and blood-soaked past.
In Locke & Key: Small World, Hill explores a branch of the Locke family tree in another historical vignette as we return to Keyhouse at the beginning of the 20th century. Each one-shot issue from Locke & Key: The Golden Age seems to fall at a different point in the lives of Chamberlin Locke’s children, and chronologically Small World occurs before the previous two. Even when they published Grindhouse four years ago, they knew they would revisit Lovecraft and the Locke family. The Grindhouse back matter included an architectural floor plan of Keyhouse, scrupulously created by Rodriguez to orient himself in the Frankenstein-like manor that seems to grow with each passing issue. In the author’s notes for the Toy Room (where Tyler fought stuffed bears in Keys to the Kingdom), Hill states: “We have an idea for a short story that can explain the existence of malevolent stuffed bears. [But first] we have to tell you about the dollhouse…” Even back then, they’ve had many of these storylines fleshed out. Experiencing them out of order can be a bit disorienting, but knowing the fate of some of the characters in Small World doesn’t diminish the horror or the stakes in the slightest. This issue still manages to disturb without going to gratuitous ends, mostly thanks to Rodriguez’ chilling artwork.
In the early 20th century many little girls were gifted a dollhouse on their birthday, but if you were a Locke, you got a model replica of your ancestral home with the power to reflect reality. Mary and Jean Locke were gifted one such dollhouse by their father, in an attempt to teach them the virtues of being proper young ladies (an expectation that’s a tad absurd given the circumstances.) It functions using the new Small World key, which seems to bring the dollhouse and its wooden inhabitants to life. In fact, it bends space and time, allowing those outside the dollhouse to manipulate reality inside Keyhouse, as Mary demonstrates when she pushes a pencil head through the wall of her brother’s room to hilarious, but frightening effect.
Does it seem a little irresponsible to gift a reality-altering key to your young daughters as a toy? Probably, but the keys have entwined themselves with the Locke family. As their keepers, they’ve grown up using them. They even use the Shadow Key to call upon the strange shadow’s of Keyhouse to act as butlers, which makes for a rather unnerving diner setting. The Small World key may seem innocuous in comparison to some of the others, but as Mary points out, it gives them near god-like dominion over the residents of Keyhouse. Like any of the keys, it would be devastating in the wrong hands, but this issue proves yet again that even with innocent intentions, something small can easily slip through the cracks.
In this case, a black widow descends on the dollhouse after Jean forgets to remove the key before going to bed. Roused by their parent’s screams, the Locke children, Mary, Jean, John and Ian, must make their way back to the dollhouse through the dark, winding halls of the manor before the widow finds its prey. The pacing is absolutely perfect as the story plunges into everyone’s worst nightmare come to life. Rodriguez experiments with high and low angles, framing panels to show the spider lurking just out of sight, ready to pounce from the shadows.
In the issue’s back matter interview by publisher Ted Adams, Rodriguez says he’s never felt more comfortable with the material, deftly able to bring the story to the page exactly as he imagines it. It certainly shows in Locke & Key: Small World. Each panel is dynamic and imposing, yet slowly strings the reader along as they’re caught in the story’s web. Combined with his meticulous detailing, Rodriguez creates a paralyzing ambiance of anticipation that truly makes the reader squirm every time the widow’s skeletal legs pry around corners.
Buy it! Locke & Key: Small World is a welcome return to one of the greatest horror comics of the last decade. I was seriously stoked for this issue and it did not disappoint! Fans will want to watch out for the next three issues that will complete Locke & Key: The Golden Age, which will likely continue to delve deeper into the mysterious history of Keyhouse and the household of Chamberlin Locke. Hill and Rodriguez have been working on more stories in Lovecraft and beyond the new TV pilot, we could also see a whole new 37-issue arc! Plans aren’t set in stone, but at the very least readers will get a seventh trade paperback with The Golden Age.