In 2005, fresh from the success of publishing his first 11-page Spider-Man story, the writer Joe Hill was talking to IDW Publishing about ideas for adapting his short stories of the weird and fantastic into comics. “They were talking to me about my stories,” Hill recalls, “and I said, ‘I’ve got something better. Something original.’”
That something original was a house full of strange keys, occult artefacts that open strange doors to transport or transform anyone who steps across their thresholds.
When Locke and Key began in 2008, its story of a family starting a new life in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, was an instant hit. Mixing fantasy and horror, the story focused on Nina and her children Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, struggling to come to terms with the violent murder of their father. When they stumbled across the keys in their new home, they unlocked a series of adventures that ran for 37 issues and has now been adapted for television by Netflix.
Hill – who adopted his pen name to avoid the literary shadow of his father Stephen King – was a big fan of the Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which debuted from DC in 1989, and wanted to write something similar, something that did rehearse familiar horror plots, but was scary and horrific nonetheless.
Like Sandman, Locke and Key features a core cast of characters, spiralling out from the personal narrative to encompass storylines in the distant past, notably the American revolution, when the keys in question were first forged, and on to a wider Lovecraftian dimensions populated by eldritch entities.
These sweeping supernatural themes are grounded in Hill’s strong characterisation of the family and the Chilean artist Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork – a clean, comic-book realism with an often muted colour palette.
The success of Locke and Key, with the old rambling house lurking at its heart, was one of the driving forces behind the recent renaissance in horror comics.
Titles including Something Is Killing the Children, Gideon Falls, Infidel, Ice Cream Man, Harrow County, and the new incarnation of the quintessential 90s horror comic Hellblazer have matched commercial success with critical acclaim as they put a fresh spin on old fears or stir wholly new ones.
While Hill has made a name for himself in prose fiction with novels such as NOS4A2, The Fireman and The Heart-Shaped Box, comics were his first love.
“When I started off writing after college I tried to write these New Yorker-type stories,” he says, “but it didn’t work, and I realised this was because I didn’t read those types of stories for pleasure. I was reading grim, screwed-up horror stories; I was reading horror comics.”
A new series of Locke and Key is due to be published later this year, and Hill has also launched a horror imprint for DC, Hill House Comics.
The first five titles run from Basketful of Heads – a collaboration between Hill and artist Leomacs that is pure schlock reminiscent of the classic EC comics that Hill enjoyed as a child – to The Low, Low Woods, a small-town coming-of-age horror, the first comics work from novelist Carmen Maria Machado, with artist Dani.
Hill says he was aiming for a collection of titles that share a feel and tone – horror that builds on the contemporary resurgence with stories that are relevant and don’t shy away from difficult issues.
“It’s been a great decade for horror,” Hill says, “not just in comics but in movies, like the Blumhouse films, Hereditary, It Follows, and TV like Stranger Things. It’s incredible at the moment.”
After helping to ignite the recent horror boom in print, Hill is hoping Locke and Key will make an impact on the screen. The series proved too much for both Fox and Hulu, but with the author part of the Netflix team as both writer and executive producer this time the omens are good.
“Netflix has absolutely nailed it,” Hill says. “It’s got fantasy, it’s got horror, and it’s got a sense of fun and playfulness. I’m really, really proud of how the show captures what Gabriel and I set out to create.”
• Locke and Key is available on Netflix from Friday.