American audio drama has been very slowly rebuilding itself ever since the massacre that was the coming of television, and over the past few years a critical mass has started to form. Locke & Key is an ambitious epic, a thirteen-hour-plus adaptation of Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez’s graphic novel featuring a massive cast and co-produced for Audible by Audio Comics and Final Rune productions. I haven’t actually read the graphic novel, so I’m forced to judge this entirely on its own merits. It can best be described as an adult take on a YA fantasy concept, using magic and the supernatural to tell the story of a family haunted by bad decisions made in the past and by the ones they keep making. Parts of it are whimsical, other parts are very sad, and the overall effect is very powerful indeed.
The story centers on the Locke family, who move back to the town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of father Rendell, into their ancestral home of Keyhouse. Appropriate to its name, Keyhouse holds a number of strange keys which unlock magic doors- there’s a key that turns you into a ghost, one that lets you open your head and root around, and one key that literally lets you go anywhere. But the Locke family is being chased by the same madman who killed Rendell, and he’s the servant of a dark power- one which dates back to a fatal mistake Rendell and his friends made when they were teenagers, and which the youngest child, in order to save his family, ends up setting free.
A strong sense of trauma pervades the story. It starts with tragedy and never quite stops, even as it uses magic and fantasy to cushion the blows. Every death is given weight and consequence, and we track the psychological toll it takes on those left behind. Which isn’t to say this is an unrelenting parade of misery and despair; there’s an honest mix of emotions here, as the Locke family (notably teenagers Tyler and Kinzie) try to go about their lives and make friends and survive school, all between attacks from terrifying monsters. But the weight of tragedy is definitely felt throughout the story, and it can be quite brutal at times.
The emotional honesty of the story is supported by some very strong voice work; even the minor parts are memorable, and while some of the more prominently advertised celebrity cast members are hard to recognize (it doesn’t help that Tatiana Maslany is most famous for being chameleonic) nobody sounds out of place. (There are even cameos by Hill and Rodriguez, as well as Hill’s dad, Stephen King.)
This is a production which has to keep a lot of plates spinning, as it were, and a lot of what really impressed me about it is just how well it pulls off the inherent challenges of the material. A lot of very visual things happen, and the dialogue manages to get across what’s happening without the explanation getting too belabored. There are a few moments which are a little confusing until they’ve been resolved, and maybe one or two I still don’t fully get, but considering the sheer length of the piece that may be inevitable. The cast is also appropriately huge, and the narrative jumps from place to place frequently, but it’s never hard to keep track of that. There’s a good lush quality to the sound design, and the theme music is particularly effective.
Locke and Key is free on audible.com until November 4, and there’s no good reason not to pick it up. This is a big, handsomely mounted work of audio drama which is not only technically slick but emotionally intense, a satisfying and complete dark fantasy adventure about the end of childhood. I don't like to talk about the “return” of audio theater, since it never went away entirely, but a project like this says a lot about the medium’s returning health. There’s clearly plenty of fertile ground left, and many doors to open.