Monday, March 8, 2010
Horns by Joe Hill
Ignatius “Ig” Perrish isn’t having a very good year. Born the son of modest fame and privilege, and once blessed with an abundance of love and friendship, his life has collapsed around him. Merrin, his first and only love, was brutally raped and murdered, leaving Ig as the only suspect. Although never charged with her murder, his community seems convinced of his guilt - with some people going so far as to pray for his death. It’s hard to imagine how things could get worse.
That is, until the morning horns begin to grow out of his head.
That’s the premise of Horns, the second novel by Joe Hill, author of Heart Shaped Box and the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, and the son of novelist Stephen King.
Appearing the morning after a night of drunken violence, the horns are unquestionably and frighteningly real. They inspire the worst in whoever sees them, encouraging sin and drawing out hateful thoughts unmitigated by compassion or conscience, but leaving the memory of the conversation as little more than a haze. Within a short time Ig’s status as the town pariah is confirmed, but the horns also reveal the darkest secret of all, one that hits very close to home: the name of Merrin’s true killer.
While revealing the killer early in the story removes the question of “Who dunnit?”, the novel successfully builds suspense by keeping you guessing at the motives of everyone involved. Through flashbacks, the long and ultimately doomed relationship of Merrin and Ig is revealed, culminating in that tragic night. Although the disturbingly creepy history of the killer all but screams “Danger!”, you’re left wondering if Merrin was as innocent as Ig would like to believe - or if she was hiding a secret of her own.
If there’s a noticeable flaw in Horns it’s the inconsistency of the spiritual journey that drives Ig‘s actions. He himself admits the Devil he mimics is a trickster. Yet he obligingly takes the dark confessions he inspires at face value, abandoning friends and family along the way. Likewise, he’s abandoned a belief in a conventional god, considering the brutality of Merrin’s death as justification for his action. Yet, in the end his friends and family refuse to be so easily discarded and rise to his defense. The god he resents is not so vocal, yet even in Merrin’s murder there may be proof of hidden mercy. Taken as a whole it’s a bit of a philosophical jumble, perhaps too much like real life to leave the reader satisfied.
Joe Hill is a talented and able writer, and there are snippets of prose that linger in your thoughts long after the book is closed. If there is such a thing as a sophomore slump for novelists, someone forgot to tell Hill. Horns is solid proof that he is far more than a flash in the pan, and is likely a voice of horror for years to come.