“Only the Devil would make their home in New Jersey.”
In the small town of Columbiana, after the pastor’s wife, Kelly, is murdered, the townspeople are immediately incensed and screaming for justice. Unfortunately, she died during the FBI’s illicit experiments with the supernatural, used as a sacrifice with “better blood” instead of the transients that Agent Garrett typically uses, because no one cares when they go missing. The town wants a quick resolution, and Sheriff Mullen must deliver it, but as he’s tasked with keeping the experiments under wraps and cleaning up any messes they cause, he finds himself in an untenable position. With the townsfolk demanding he find the murderer and the FBI demanding he pacify them and bring them to heel, he’s under pressure to find a scapegoat and quickly.
Who better to shift blame to than Mitchell, Jackson, Theresa, and Lupe, the queer teenagers who are already targeted for being different? As a bonus, Mullen finally has an unimpeachable reason to rid Columbiana of its freaks. Garrett and Mullen enlist the aid of the pastor to stoke the flames of moral outrage and fear of the “other” already brewing in the town. Having been counseled to be mistrustful of people acting or dressing strangely and listening to violent music, the townsfolk are primed to unquestioningly swallow the idea that a satanic group of cultist committed the murder, and who else could that be but those people? When Lupe reaches her limit after another transphobic attack from her manager, she strikes him and the incident is spun as an attempted murder. The group flees town when the police present them as a threat to the public. Now on the run, the friends ends up meeting the only being that can help them…so long as they let it in.
Set during America’s most recent culturally massive satanic panic, Let Me Out explores the skewed sense of morality, prejudice, and lack of compassion that can foment in and be weaponized by rigid religious and societal norms. Thus, there are some components in this story that readers might find triggering, such as deadnaming and transphobia; a complete list is in the content advisory. The novel’s emotional core comes from the group of friends whose queerness and participation in the punk music scene make them outcasts. The story quickly sets the tone for how they are treated as it opens with Mitch being violently attacked in the parking lot of a YMCA, helped home by his lovingly sarcastic friends, then deadnamed and misgendered by his parents.
Mitch’s defining characteristic is that he’s willing to fight for his right to be respected and be himself. Terri is the level-headed, cohesive force in their family unit that helps steer them away from trouble with humor and sarcastic chiding. Although she’s under pressure to conform, her home life seems to be the most stable, making Mitch’s parents think positively of her, unlike Lupe and Jackson. Lupe is similar to Terri, trying to help them stay under the radar, but she also acts as a foil to Mitch. Whereas his pain from mistreatment and disgust is directed outward as a stubborn refusal to back down (even when outnumbered), Lupe’s is directed inward. The comfort and ease she has with her friends drains away as she internalizes the ugliness flung at her, especially the daily harassment she gets from her manager. She has to swallow his vitriol because she doesn’t live with her parents like the others, so needs the job to support herself. Jackson, god bless him, is the hot-head; impulsive and quick to anger, he’s always ready to throw people’s prejudice back in their faces…with his fists.
If their group carries the theme of love and acceptance and the strength found family provides when the world is against you, Sheriff Mullen and Agent Garrett show the complete opposite—selfish, self-interest that has no moral compass and a causal disregard for the “worthless” and marginalized. Sheriff Mullen is emblematic of the subtler forms of immorality and injustice—the indifferent complacency of those with privilege typically found in the good, moral citizen who shows kindness…as long as you’re one of them. Agent Garrett is corruption and greed personified. His hubris in believing he can control a being as powerful as the Devil, his utter lack of humanity, and his unabashed willingness to throw human lives away as a means to an end illustrates how people with authority can wield it against the vulnerable—from those at the minor end of the scale like parents and cops, to those who can do harm on a grand scale like government officials and the wealthy. Garrett and Mullen epitomize the problem of unchecked authority and how much damage it can cause.
As a character-driven story, the plot focuses more on Lupe, Terri, Jackson, and Mitch’s day-to-day lives and the stress from simply existing outside of accepted mores, particularly Mitch, as he is struggles with how his usual anger is becoming unrelenting rage after this latest attack. Development of the characters and setting up the underlying conflict are the strongest aspects of the story and, until the lead up to the climax, I feel that the pacing is well done and creates an atmosphere of slow building pressure, with everyone in the group coming ever closer to breaking open and letting loose. Up to this point, the main horror element is the underlying societal horror, with a few isolated examples of overt gore, but then, the narrative switches gears and it feels less like reaching the boiling point of simmering tension and more like a race to the fun horror stuff and relieved glee as the disenfranchised take their power back.
As someone who enjoys horror, I’ve watched and read many works featuring possession and the importance of the spilling of blood and its allegorical uses, so I was a bit let down that the use of those elements isn’t a new spin on an old classic. The government experiment of summoning the Devil is a nice touch, but its execution is muddled. It’s alluded to that the government has been performing this experiment for some time, but the end goal is unclear. Is the FBI summoning the Devil and offering them blood and sacrifices to gain their partnership and compliance because they’re power hungry? Are they worshiping them because that is how the government received and maintains power? Are they trying to find a way to control the Devil and are simply a bit mad? Maybe it doesn’t matter, as these elements function nicely as thematic delivery systems.
All the ideas, emotions, and atmosphere building are expressed well by the art style of the graphic novel. I enjoyed the different color pallets and how they are used to convey certain people and elements; I especially liked the line work used in some scenes. The color choices and weight of the lines during the night scenes make the characters almost glow and adds depth to the images, while in brighter, less matte scenes, they make the characters pop and help the parts of characters that are close to larger blocks of the background transition into it. This exemplifies one of the reasons I love graphic novels and find them so engaging; they are able to convey so much in even a simple pen stroke or color choice that a book would need a paragraph to say (if it could even communicate it at all). In one of the early scenes between Garrett and Mullen, Garrett walks away after delivering a smug rebuttal and, as he does, the wind blows his suit jacket in such a way that it resembles a villain’s cape, telling the reader all they need to know about Garrett. Trying to put into words the feeling and information that simple flourish imparts and have it make the same impact would probably end up sounding silly and cartoonish, no pun intended.
Despite not breaking new ground for me, Let Me Out is an enjoyable and entertaining read featuring a diverse cast of protagonists. The antagonists and their machinations are horrible, but sadly believable; the art style is fun, very compatible with the narrative, and effective; and I enjoyed the characters, the family they provide for one another, and the Devil’s vibes.