Horns: Frightening, sad and ultimately hopeful

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Joe Hill HornsHorns by Joe Hill

CLASSIFICATION: Horns is a murder mystery/love story/revenge thriller with a dark supernatural twist in the vein of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub.

FORMAT/INFO: Horns is 384 pages long divided over 4 titled Parts and 50 numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person, mainly via the protagonist Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, but also includes narratives by the villain and Ig’s older brother Terry. Horns is self-contained.

February 16, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Horns via William Morrow. The UK edition will be published on February 18, 2010 via Gollancz. PS Publishing is also producing two limited edition versions of Horns: 1) A Slipcased Copy Signed by Joe Hill with interior color plates by Vincent Chong, and 2), a Signed Traycased Edition limited to 200 copies.

NOTE: Horns was optioned for film adaptation by Mandalay Pictures (Sleepy Hollow) back in October 2009.

ANALYSIS: In his short, but already illustrious career, Joe Hill has established himself as the real deal, winning well-deserved awards for both his short fiction and novel debut as well as succeeding in the world of comic books with the highly praised LOCKE & KEY series. Does the magic continue in Joe Hill’s newest novel, Horns?

Well, writing-wise, Horns once again finds Joe Hill at the top of his game, in particular his uncanny ability to examine humanity in all of its beauty and ugliness. This is done through fully fleshed out characters (Iggy Perrish, Merrin Williams, Lee Tourneau, Terry Perrish, Glenna Nicholson, Eric Hannity) who readers can care for, sympathize with, or hate; piercing insights about love, sin or other topics relevant in everyday life; and the author’s keen and vivid descriptive abilities:

  • “It was something, the way the wheelchair picked up speed, the way a person’s life picked up speed, the way a life was like a bullet aimed at one final target, impossible to slow or turn aside, and, like the bullet, you were ignorant of what you were going to hit, would never know anything except the rush and the impact.”
  • “Ig had always liked to listen to his father, to watch him while he played. It was almost wrong to say his father played. It often seemed the other way around: that the horn was playing him. The way his cheeks swole out, then caved in as if he were being inhaled into it, the way the golden keys seemed to grab his fingers like little magnets snatching at iron filings, causing them to leap and dance in unexpected, startling fits. The way he shut his eyes and bent his head and twisted back and forth at the hips, as if his torso were an auger, screwing its way deeper and deeper into the center of his being, pulling the music up from somewhere in the pit of his belly.”
  • “Hopefully, over the years of being best friends, Lee would learn the truth about music: that it was the third rail of life. You grabbed it to shock yourself out of the dull drag of hours, to feel something, to burn with all the emotions you didn’t get to experience in the ordinary run of school and TV and loading the dishwasher after dinner.”

The story, however, was somewhat disappointing because of its familiarity. The hero blamed for a crime he didn’t commit; discovering the real murderer; exacting revenge against that murderer; the tale of youths falling in love; learning why Merrin was killed in the first place… the subplots in Horns are fairly conventional, aside from Ig suddenly developing devil-like abilities. Even the execution, while skillfully handled, was largely formulaic right down to the flashbacks, foreshadowing and other well-used plot devices.

Creatively, I loved the idea of the hero using abilities usually associated with evil, especially the ‘horns’ which caused people to confess their darkest urges — their worst and most shameful impulses — and asking permission to commit more. The only problem I had with this concept is that I felt the abilities that Ig develops and the many references Joe Hill makes to Satan over the course of the novel were a bit too cliché, like being able to learn all of a person’s guilty secrets upon skin contact, commanding snakes, wielding a pitchfork as a weapon, ‘luck of the devil’, 666, the gift of tongues, “The Devil Inside”, Asmodeus, ‘devil in a blue dress’, and so on.

Comparatively, while Horns is another well-written and entertaining novel, I felt it lacked the surprise twists and jaw-dropping moments of Heart-Shaped Box. I also thought Joe Hill’s debut was more original overall and less predictable in its presentation than the author’s new book. Nevertheless, I immensely enjoyed reading Horns and believe the novel will only add to Joe Hill’s growing legacy.

~Robert Thompson


book review Joe Hill HornsJoe 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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAs 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.

~Marion Deeds

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, with us since March 2011, 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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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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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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