Horns by Joe Hill
Joe Hill’s horror novel Horns is about sympathy for the devil, one devil, anyway. Ignatius Perrish, Ig to his friends, commemorates the one-year anniversary of the murder of his lover Merrin by getting angrily, blindly drunk. When he wakes the next morning, horns have sprouted from his temples. At first, it seems like no one else has noticed, but he discovers that while people do see the horns, they just forget about them right away. They also feel the need to tell Ig their deepest, darkest, most twisted thoughts and wishes. Very quickly, Ig learns what he has suspected for the past year, that nearly everyone in his hometown believes he is the one who raped and murdered Merrin.
Ig was never charged with Merrin’s murder. The forensic evidence that would have exonerated him burned up in a suspicious fire. Now, he finds out in short order that his parish priest, his grandmother, and his father and mother all believe he is guilty. Ig’s brother, Terry, was Ig’s most vocal supporter during the investigation. Now, under the influence of the horns, he tells Ig that he doesn’t just believe his brother is innocent, he knows it. He knows who committed the murder, and the horns compel him to tell Ig who killed the woman he loved.
As Ig deals with his continuing transformation and attempts to get revenge on the murderer, Hill moves the book effortlessly between the present and the past, back to Ig’s friendship with the strange boy Lee Tourneau and his storybook romance with Merrin. In the present, Ig finds himself functioning as a diabolical therapist to people, persuading them away from their worst desires into ones that aren’t quite so dark. Moral relativism at its finest! He learns the boundaries of his growing powers and finds out more about his friends and about Merrin.
I thought the structure of Horns was odd at first, but Hill makes it work. As the point of view shifts among the various characters the reader discovers new information. When we see Merrin through Lee’s eyes, we get information that explains her baffling behavior on the night she died. The sense of place is powerful, from Evel Knievel Trail, to the Perrish’s house, to the abandoned foundry where the final action happens. Hill pulls off a difficult trick — starting a book with characters that are all unlikeable and redeeming many of them by the end.
I thought the tone of the book was somber, but there is plenty of wit as well as lovely descriptions. On the way to confront his parents, Ig looks at his front yard where his grandmother is sleeping.
…The sun struck the pitcher of iced tea and turned the rim into a hoop of brilliance, a silver halo. It was as peaceful a scene as could be, but no sooner had Ig stopped the car than his stomach started to churn. It was like the church. Now that he was here, he didn’t want to get out. He dreaded seeing the people he’d come here to see.
There are lots of sight gags and plays on words, (“devil with a blue dress” comes to mind). The title itself is a play on words. Ig’s father and brother are trumpet players, and Ig often thinks of those horns. Ig’s continued transformation unreels across the book with perfect timing.
Hill blends Kafkaesque surrealism with concrete, gritty American horror, spiced with glimmers of humor. He toys with basic questions of good and evil, and creates characters that engage our sympathies. Terry, who is pretty selfish, overcomes a powerful temptation to leave town (a temptation offered by Ig himself) to stay and do right by his brother. I do have one complaint about Ig. As Ig becomes more devilish, snakes gather to worship him. Ig manipulates the snakes and uses them as tools. Will no one speak up for these poor exploited reptiles? Where are the Snakes’ Rights people when you need them?
The Harper paperback edition has a short story called “Devil on the Staircase” as an extra. It’s a nice coda to the novel, a story that reads, because of its layout, like the text of a graphic novel.
Hill has a different and interesting view of the world and the writing chops to tell a story. Horns is a frightening, sad and ultimately hopeful novel. I look forward to his next book.