Horrible Monday: Horns by Joe Hill

book review Joe Hill Horns

book review Joe Hill HornsHorns 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.

Horns — (2010) Publisher: Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with a thunderous hangover, a raging headache… and a pair of horns growing from his temples. At first Ig thought the horns were a hallucination, the product of a mind damaged by rage and grief. He had spent the last year in a lonely, private purgatory, following the death of his beloved, Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances. A mental breakdown would have been the most natural thing in the world. But there was nothing natural about the horns, which were all too real. Once the righteous Ig had enjoyed the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned musician and younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, he had security, wealth, and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more — he had Merrin and a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic. But Merrin’s death damned all that. The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried. And he was never cleared. In the court of public opinion in Gideon, New Hampshire, Ig is and always will be guilty because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to make the investigation go away. Nothing Ig can do, nothing he cansay, matters. Everyone, it seems, including God, has abandoned him. Everyone, that is, but the devil inside… Now Ig is possessed of a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look — a macabre talent he intends to use to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It’s time for a little revenge… It’s time the devil had his due...

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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. Stefan Yates /

    I too liked Horns quite a bit (though not as much as Heart-Shaped Box.) I kind of felt like I was reading a black comedy like one of those movies where the things that happen to the characters are so terrible that you want to look away, but find yourself chuckling a little instead. Overall it was a fun novel to read and I’m eagerly anticipating his next offering!

  2. @Stefan — I haven’t read Heart-Shaped Box yet, but I am looking forward to it.

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