If you’re a fan of exploitation films, tough final girls and retro, pulpy horror full of twists, give Basketful of Heads a go. It’s the first series to be released from DC Black Label’s horror imprint Hill House, helmed by horror/fantasy author Joe Hill (Locke & Key, NOS4ATU, Heart-Shaped Box) and it’s available to read in full on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE.
To be clear, not all of Hill House’s stories are written by Hill himself, but Basketful of Heads is. As a fan of Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts and the Locke & Key series, I was excited to check this one out.
The supernatural tale takes us to Brody Island, Maine, a sleepy blob of land cut off from the rest of the world save for a long bridge. It’s the kind of seemingly idyllic place you’d go to eat ice cream cones on the beach while listening to Bruce Springsteen on a boombox. It’s late summer, 1983, and our heroine, June, has come to the island to visit her boyfriend, Liam. She’s young and blonde, wearing a pair of short denim cut-offs and has a smattering of freckles across her face. She’s your All-American final-girl-next-door if there ever was one.
Liam’s in training to be a cop and has spent the summer helping the local department—a crew of good ol’ boys—with their various tasks. As his internship’s reached its end, June and Liam should be able to just kick back and enjoy the waning summer rays. Unfortunately, just hours after June arrives, four cons break out of the nearby prison and a storm rolls to shore. Waves batter the bridge next to a cheery sign saying it’s not too late to turn around and stay in Brody, but it may be too late to leave. It’s a dark and stormy night on a remote island with some escaped ne’er-do-wells on the loose. All the urban legend boxes are checked.
These increasingly complicated events ultimately leave June to fend for herself. She’s quite capable, but unbeknownst to June, the axe she grabs as her weapon of choice is enchanted. Even when she decapitates an assailant, it leaves them partially alive. Hence, June’s quest for survival soon earns her—that’s right, a basketful of heads, each with its own opinion, agenda and manipulations.
The book’s artwork comes from Leomacs and adds to the story’s nostalgic and foreboding feel. The golden-hued day fades to a blue, rainswept night. The tattered American flag June drapes over her basket, the yellow rain jacket she dons and the bloody ax she wields turn her into a warped Red Riding Hood of sorts.
The little details add to the time and place, too: a teen girl’s Black Flag shirt, a Portland Sea Dogs jersey, an ABBA poster hung on a bedroom wall.
The art also reveals clues June has yet to see. For our heroine, the night never stops being full of surprises, twists and turns. Every answer unlocks more questions. The absurdity of her situation leaves plenty of room for dark humor—she at one point accuses a severed head of “trying to get into my head”—but the odds stacked against her make sure things stay tense and more than a little dangerous.
How June handles each challenge is part of what makes her fun to root for. As someone who consumes a lot of horror, I’m frequently disappointed in throwaway characters who do all the wrong things and seem completely incapable of coming up with a single good plan.
June doesn’t always make the right choice, but she knows how to get herself out of a bind. She’s smart, witty, a little crass, and hard to intimidate. She never crumbles and, as one of her enemies says, “she takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” The lengths she’ll go to in order to survive and save the ones she loves are endless and frequently bloody—don’t worry, only some of it is June’s. She’s also innately curious, making her hellbent on solving the conspiracies of the island and getting to the bottom of her paranormal axe.
The other characters aren’t bad either and the dialogue between them is a lot of fun. The convergence of personalities adds a fair bit of levity, but to tell you in what way would be to spoil it.
Basketful of Heads is a fun, gritty little read for anyone who wants a throwback horror story with a clever lead who transcends her archetype. It’s also a good one for fans of Joe Hill and his dad, horror legend Stephen King, thanks to a few Easter eggs in the text. The prison the cons escape? Why it’s Shawshank, located in Derry County, Maine.
Juliet Bennett Rylah writes about horror comics and the dark side of superheroes for DCComics.com. Check out more of her writing on WeLikeLA, TheLAnd and No Proscenium, and be sure to follow her on Twitter at @JBRylah.