Onyx reviews: Horns by Joe Hill
In his short story "Pop Art" (from 20th Century Ghosts), Joe Hill
asked readers to believe in an inflatable boy. The concept was patently ludicrous, but
Hill pulled it off with aplomb. Achieving this level of suspension of disbelief
is hard in a short story; in a novel it is massively difficult. Any false
or wrong note destroys the illusion. Fortunately, Hill is a talented writer.
opens with Ignatius Perrish waking up after a drunken binge with a massive
horns growing from his forehead. They aren't yet fully formed—they're painful and continue to develop over the
course of the book. The novel's success relies on how Hill handles this
revelation and upon Ig's reaction to his discovery. Readers must take the situation as seriously as Gregor takes his transformation at the beginning of Kafka's The
Metamorphosis. To accomplish this, Hill adopts a jaunty, almost audacious
tone that implies that just about anything could happen. The fact that Ig drives a
Gremlin is just one example of the author's mischievousness.
Ig is the bête noire of Gideon, NH.
Exactly a year ago, his
long-time girlfriend Merrin was raped and murdered near the old foundry at the outskirts of
town. Ig was and continues to be the prime suspect. He and Merrin had a public
argument that evening and he couldn't account for his whereabouts at the time of
her murder because he was
passed out drunk. He was never formally charged because of a lack of
evidence, but almost everyone in town believes he's
guilty. It's the classic Hitchcockian trope of the
unjustly accused innocent man struggling to clear his name.
Ig can't remember what he did on the first anniversary of Merrin's murder either
perhaps peeing on a plastic Virgin Mary at her memorial), but he's convinced that he did
At first, he thinks the horns are a hallucination
or a metaphor for some illness. They aren't the only thing that has changed for Ig. People he touches suddenly feel compelled to unload their darkest secrets
and are susceptible to Ig's suggestions. Afterward, they don't even remember
talking to him. He learns that the local cops—men he went to school with—don't
believe that he was capable of
Merrin's murder but members of his family do. His ailing grandmother, his mother, his father, and his
celebrity brother all share their private thoughts with him. The onslaught of unrestrained
confessions is almost more than Ig can stand, yet he is compelled to hear more.
Instead of keeping the truth about Merrin's
death secret until the end of the book, Hill makes the surprising decision to reveal
the killer to Ig—and to readers—about fifty pages in. Then he makes
another daring choice. For the next sixty pages, he abandons the promising and
compelling contemporary storyline, jumping back a decade to the nostalgic
days when Ig first met Merrin after her family moved to town.
Merrin singles him
out for her interest, flashing her cross in the sunlight at him during a church
service and leaving it behind on the pew for him to retrieve. Ig vies for her attention with Lee Tourneau, a boy who rescued Ig
from drowning after an ill-conceived daredevil feat. They come to an agreement
and make an unholy exchange that seals the deal and leads indirectly to an
unfortunate accident. Thus began an uneasy
alliance between Ig and Lee, who isn't well liked. Knowing who killed Merrin puts a
different spin on this section of the novel. Every
action has overtones and resonance that it wouldn't have had absent
Merrin's cross is one of several religious symbols in the novel. Ig's immersion in the lake is a
kind of baptism. Even the town's name, Gideon, summons to mind the
Bible, and the high school football team is, of course, the Saints. The horns,
too, are emblematic of another aspect of Ig's life. Ig's father was a
musician, a trumpet player, as was his brother. That was supposed to be the
trajectory of Ig's life, too. However, his asthma meant that he did not have the
lungs to play the horn professionally.
For the most part, the icons of
religion do not ward against Ig's power, unlike in most horror fiction. When he seeks Father Mould's assistance with his problem,
worries that he'll burst into flames when he enters the church, but nothing happens. Worse, both the Father and Sister Bennett are
vulnerable to Ig's power and reveal their own uncharitable private
Christians in Horns are not cast in a very
flattering light. At best, they're no better than anyone else. Merrin's mother's
transformation into religious zealotry after the murder is very much like what
happened to Johnny Smith's mother after he fell into a coma in The Dead Zone.
The nut doesn't fall far from the tree, it seems.
It is the devil who gets his due in Horns.
Many great songs have been written about him: Sympathy
for the Devil, The Devil Inside, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Ig knows them all.
(However, he isn't complimentary about the works of Judas Coyne, the protagonist
of Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, who he calls "a guy
whose idea of musical complexity is a song with four power chords instead of
Though Ig is apparently turning into some kind of demon—perhaps even Satan
himself—the reason for his "conversion" isn't clear. Whatever Ig is becoming, he isn't
evil. He does plant a couple of evil suggestions into the minds of people he
meets, and what he does to
his grandmother is inexcusable, but for the most part he's as much of a good guy
as he ever was, even though the past year hasn't been very kind to him.
Hill seems to be interested in
exploring the character and reputation of the devil. In some religions, Satan is the good
guy or, at worst, a gremlin—responsible in one legend for fertility. Ig
compares the devil to a superhero or a literary critic. By contrast, God is an unimaginative writer of popular
fictions. Besides, he argues, if God punishes sinners, and the devil carries out the punishment,
aren't they really acting in concert? In summary, Ig claims that all the schemes
of the devil are nothing compared to what men can think up and do.
the contemporary action, Hill changes gears and Horns goes from a tale of
romance to a revenge novel as Ig sets about making sure that the person
responsible for Merrin's murder is brought to justice. In the process, Hill slowly
reveals more about Ig and Merrin's relationship. The two young adults reached a
crossroads after college when their respective ambitions
pulled them in different directions. After being separated for several months,
Merrin made a surprising decision, one that led to the argument on the night
she was killed. This time, Hill does keep the truth of the matter until the end,
when the revelation has a most dramatic impact—but only because he's made
readers care so much for Ig and Merrin.
There's no sophomore curse working
here. Even more than with his first novel, Joe Hill demonstrates that the promise
displayed in his terrific short story collection extends to his longer works.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent
2007-2010. All rights reserved