The question is: Did the book strike a good balance between magic and reality?
For a brief moment, 13 members of Boston’s Comic Book Club, crowded around two tables at the Friendly Toast in Cambridge, sit quietly and contemplate the question. James Murray, group’s founder and leader, glances around for takers. Suddenly, there are many. Five people start talking simultaneously.
“Yes!” someone shouts.
“Definitely!” says another.
“No, no, no,” says someone at the other side of the table, grabbing his copy of the book and flipping through its pages.
“Yeah, I have to agree . . . I don’t think it got it quite right, actually.”
With a hint of resignation, a small voice nearby — apparently heard by nobody — says, “Well, it depends what you mean by ‘reality.’ ”
On this evening, the group is discussing the much-acclaimed series Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, which tells the story of a sinister mansion whose doorways transform anyone who walks through them. As it turns out, the old house, located in a town called Lovecraft, Mass., is also home to a “hate-filled and relentless creature that will not rest until it forces open the most terrible door of them all,” according to the book jacket.
For the next five minutes, before they move on to the next question on the agenda, group members will debate the subtle differences between horror and dark fantasy, trauma and memory, enchantment and real life. The house, they agree, is a world-within-a-world, a place that exists within our familiar reality and yet imposes its own kind of logic on those who enter.
“This isn’t like D+D magic,” says Gillian Daniels, “there’s a real psychology behind what’s going on.” Jerry Dreiss, the book club’s eldest member, agrees. He tells the group about studies on memory retention and doorways. Some research, he explains, suggests an increased tendency for people to forget information after they have passed through a doorway. Opening a door and walking through it really can cause a transformation in us.
Jerry’s remark sets off a whole series of conversations and side-conversations.
Because the restaurant is starting to get busier, and the bar crowd rowdier, the noise level of the Comic Book Club rises, as well. Out of the din someone can be heard shouting across the table, “They don’t know they’re being stalked!’’ — a comment that draws concerned looks from nearby tables.
The comic book club wasn’t always this lively. At the group’s very first meeting at Murray’s apartment back in 2012, only one person showed up: Murray.
“It was a rookie mistake to do it at my place; and I didn’t know how to advertise,” Murray recalls. “And it probably didn’t help that we were reading ‘Black Hole,’ ” a series about a mysterious STD that causes teenagers to develop hideous mutations like horns and tails. But soon enough, Murray worked out the kinks, and he’s had a loyal core of members ever since.
His goal from the outset was to replicate the experience he’d had in a post-apocalyptic book club back in his native England. He missed the interesting people he’d met there and the group’s passionate and playful literary salons.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of guys with beards sitting around talking about the end of the world,” says Murray. “We always had a good laugh.”
Back at the Friendly Toast, the members of Boston’s Comic Book Club are taking turns rating Locke & Key on a scale of 1-10. There’s a consensus that the series has created a plausible world but that the characters could use some work. When the last member has declared a score, Murray crunches the numbers. The group, he announces, has rated the series a 7.71.
After the others have left, a few members linger, talking about why they joined. Jonathan Singer did it because his wife, Cristina Rivera, a book club co-organizer and lifelong comics fan, got him excited about the stories. Dreiss signed up because he wanted to rekindle the passion for quality comics that he’d developed during the renaissance of the form back in the 80’s. A first-time club participant, Jesse Bromley, did it because of a divorce.
“I figured I’d give these guys a shot because when my wife and I split she got all the friends,” says Bromley. “But it’s fine. I mean, she likes The Invisibles, and I like Preacher. It was never gonna work out anyway.”
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Avi Steinberg is the author of “The Lost Book of Mormon,’’ which will be published by Knopf Doubleday in October.