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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.

Horns opens with Ignatius Perrish waking up after a drunken binge with a massive hangover—and demonic 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.

Beyond drinking, Ig can't remember what he did on the first anniversary of Merrin's murder either (except perhaps peeing on a plastic Virgin Mary at her memorial), but he's convinced that he did  terrible things.

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 that knowledge.

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, he 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 sentiments.

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 three.")

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.

Returning to 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 he displayed in his terrific short story collection extends to his longer works.

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