Welcome Back to Lovecraft: Joe Hill Talks Audible’s Locke & Key Audio Adaptation

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Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’ Locke & Key remains one of the great modern horror comics, a nearly 40-issue saga of the dysfunctional Locke family’s ordeal at their ancestral home of Keyhouse in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. Populated by keys that unlock otherworldly abilities, Keyhouse joins Hell House and Hill House on the list of stately manors you’d rather not inherit, a lesson the Locke children learn all too well over the course of the series.

Although Locke & Key concluded two years ago, you can relive the terror starting today thanks to Audible’s impressive audio adaptation, a sprawling 13-hour binge-listening experience that adapts Hill and Rodriguez’ four-color story into an immersive sonic experience brought to life by a top-flight cast of voice actors including genre icons Kate Mulgrew (Orange Is the New Black, Star Trek: Voyager), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) and Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense). The audio play, which adapts all six primary volumes in the series, features full sound effects, ambient music and narration. (Click here for a sample.)

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It’s also completely free—for the month of October, anyway. Until November 4, new and returning Keyheads alike can listen to the whole story at no charge.

In advance of the audio play’s release, Paste chatted with Locke & Key co-creator Joe Hill to discuss his feelings on having his work adapted into new media, tease future projects and reveal his potential upcoming role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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Paste: You have ample experience with audio books, but comic book audio plays are a pretty young medium. How did this adaptation get started?
Joe Hill: I was really hands off with it. This is Audible’s baby in the sense that they had a desire to see if they could create binge-listening experiences in the way that Netflix and some of the cable channels have created binge-viewing experiences, where you take the weekend off and you watch 13 episodes of The Walking Dead or Orange is the New Black. There have been a couple binge-listening experiences that have cropped up on the pop cultural landscape in the last year. There was Serial from NPR, and there’s been a horror thing called Welcome to Nightvale, so there’s a little bit of a market there and Audible was hot to experiment and was looking for a story that they could adapt that they thought could grab people. They liked Locke & Key and were fans of the series, and asked if they could take a shot at it, and IDW Publishing is always ready to experiment and said, yeah, go for it, let’s see what you can do.

Paste: It’s hard to imagine the saga of Keyhouse without Gabriel Rodriguez’ outstanding art. Do you see the audio version as a read-along for the comic, or is there new narration to help fill in the gaps between dialogue and action?
Hill: When I was a little kid, I used to have this read-along Spider-Man comic, and I used to sit on the floor in my Empire Strikes Back pajamas and listen to this thing over and over again with the voice acting. Spider-Man was cracking jokes and they had a sound effect for every time he shot webs, so in my mind it is kind of a read-along experience. You’ve got the audio play, but you’ve also got the comic and you’re letting one thing inform the other. But I’ve listened to the first three chapters and my sense is that it also works as a straight experience. You are listening to this world, you are hearing it and you don’t necessarily need familiarity with the comic for it to be a successful experience.

My grandmother used to say every generation thinks that they invented sex, and there’s truth in that. This generation, podcasts and the rest of it, they didn’t invent the idea of audio plays. They didn’t even invent the idea of comic books becoming audio plays. Superman was a perfectly successful audio play for decades. So there is ample precedent that people can draw the pictures with their mind if they are presented with the right performances and the right sound cues.

Sound is at the root of a lot of our fight-or-flight reactions. In horror movies, it’s usually not what you see that scares you, it’s what you can’t see but can hear coming towards you. It’s the shriek of the Velociraptor or even just the music in Jaws. There’s so much you can do with the comic-book form, but you can’t do sound. When you see the word “splort” on the page, it doesn’t quite have the same visceral impact as hearing an ax sink into someone’s skull.

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Joe Hill

Paste: The cast is headlined by genre icons like Kate Mulgrew and Tatiana Maslany. Were you around for any of the recording? Did you get a chance to coach any of the actors in how you envisioned the characters and their motivations?
Hill: Not so much. I got to do a little cameo, which was fun. I got to do one of my terrible accents and pretend I’m an actor for a couple minutes. [Laughs] I was more a cheerleader for this thing than a guiding voice. When you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s best to stay out from under foot. It would have been weird for me, with no background in radio or sound plays, to come in and start telling people how to do it. That said, I was thrilled when they cast Tatiana Maslany, because she’s obviously one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, and it’s so terrific to hear Dodge’s voice, to hear Dodge in the well. You can feel the warmth that would draw Bode Locke in, but as a grown-up, listening with grown-up ears, you can also hear the sinister undertones. All the red flags are up, but they wouldn’t be if you were Bode.

I’m a big fan of Kate Mulgrew, who read my book NOS4A2 on Audible, and I just thought it was a terrific audio performance. I actually don’t know her from Star Trek. I know that she’s a geek icon because of her work there, but I never watched Captain Janeway. I know her from Orange is the New Black. To me, she’s Red. She has a very dry sense of wit, and when she read NOS4A2 on audio, she had very witty line readings and I love that. She seems emotionally attuned to the material, and you can tell when a reader is and when a reader isn’t. I want to do a book of short stories, and one of the stories I’ve got in there, I’d like to be read by Wil Wheaton, and another I’d like to be read by Kate Mulgrew. And for a guy who never watched the Star Trek shows beyond the original, I’m sure looking like a bit of a Star Trek fanboy. [Laughs] I’m one step away from showing up at conventions in my Federation starsuit.

Paste: Did any portrayal in particular surprise you or make you look at your characters in a different way?
Hill: I was surprised and liked the hint of vulnerability in Tyler. There’s more vulnerability there than I initially imagined when I heard his voice in my head. My initial impression of Tyler, and this is a major geek reference, but I always viewed him as a Ben Grimm-like character. With Tyler, he’s always one step away from clobberin’ time. The voice actor for Tyler in the audio play sought out a little more vulnerability, a little more sense of a teenager wrestling with his regrets. It’s more human and a little more believable too.

Paste: A lot of authors are hesitant to revisit their own work post-publication. Were you at all tempted to rewrite or tweak anything now that you have a few years distance from your original scripts?
Hill: I did not handle adapting the story to audio play. Audible handled the adaptation, and that’s how it should be. I did my version of the story. Whether the audio recording is brilliant or terrible, it won’t change one word of what’s there in the comic. Me and Gabriel Rodriguez did that together to the best of our abilities. We did our beginning, our middle and our end, and we wrapped it up and walked away. If there are other versions of the story that come along, if there’s an audio play, a TV show, a video game, those will not be the same as the comic. Those will be some new version of it and will inevitably involve other people’s contributions and points of view. That said, I’ve listened to enough of the audio play to know that it’s pretty faithful to the source material.

Paste: Locke & Key wrapped up nearly two years ago. We know your next novel The Fireman is in progress, but can we expect to see new comic work from you in the near future?
Hill: You know, I’m going to try pretty hard to go a book a year for the next five years. I’ve got The Fireman out next spring, I’ve got another book lined up the year after that. There’s a book called Gunpowder, a science-fiction story. The first piece of it was published as a standalone special edition way back in 2007, and I haven’t touched it since then. It’s not a real widely-known piece of work and occasionally people who’ve read it, or Peter Crowther, who published it, will drop me a note and say, “Hey, are we ever going to get the rest of that story?” So my joke has finally reached a critical mass and I’m going to try to get Gunpowder done for 2018. Then I have some other books I’d like to write. I’d like to basically just be a prose writer for the next few years.

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That said, there are a couple standalones for Locke & Key that I’d like to write because I’ve got the stories and we kind of loosely promised a seventh book called The Golden Age that would collect some stories like “Open the Moon” and “Grindhouse.” So there is some writing to do there. And when I get out of trying to do a book a year, I had planned to take a vacation and take a year or two to just write comics. There are all these guys I admire like Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker and Brian K. Vaughan, who are usually writing three or four comics at once, and I would love to try to carry three comics at once and see what that’s like. It would be great to write a licensed character for Marvel, a licensed character from DC and an original comic of my own, all at the same time.

When I wrote Locke & Key, I wanted to find out what it was like to write a long-running series like Y: The Last Man, or Sandman or Swamp Thing. I was excited to try it, but it was also sort of a personal test. I wanted to see if I could keep it going and hold it together and make it a satisfying piece. What I’d like to try now is see if I could be a full-service comic book writer who can handle more than one story at once. I’ve never tried that.

At one point, we had conditional permission from DC to do a Sandman/Locke & Key crossover. If you remember from Sandman, Lucifer gives Morpheus the Key to Hell and puts Morpheus in charge of Hell. We were going to have the Key to Hell pop up in a 54-page Locke & Key special issue. We were going to have the Locke family cross over into Hell, and then from Hell into The Dreaming and meet all these major Vertigo characters and have an adventure. DC was cool with it, but we never did it. In the end, there was only so much time and we were really focused on ending Locke & Key well, and we didn’t want to blow Clockworks or Alpha & Omega. I had demands on me to finish writing this novel NOS4A2.

You can only stretch yourself so thin before quality of the work starts to fall off. Rather than do a potentially crappy crossover, we chose not to do it at all. But a part of me still wishes we had done it. There’s another gig Gabe and I talked about doing with Vertigo that we were excited about that had nothing to do with Locke & Key. Whether or not we’ll ever get to it is hard to say. I’ve got some novels to write and Gabe is in an exclusive contract with IDW for a while.

Paste: You recorded a cameo for this adaptation. Given free reign, are there any comic book or horror characters you’d love to portray in audio or live-action?
Hill: You mean acting? Me? [Laughs] I’ve done a little bit of acting. I was a child actor in Creepshow, the little kid with the voodoo doll (skip to 1:34). I’ve done just enough acting to know I’m pretty terrible at it, and I think anything bigger than a cameo would probably be an unwise casting choice. That said, there are rumors that they’re going to replace Captain America in the Marvel movies pretty soon, and I think I’d look damn good in the uniform.

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