So picked up a copy of Joe Hill’s novel Horns this week. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. While Hill has demonstrated real ability with his earlier novel Heart-Shaped Box, that work still felt like a first draft in a lot of ways. I figured he’d have some further refinement of his ability, provide an entertaining read, and that’d be about it.
Thankfully, I completely underestimated Mr. Hill’s refinement, or its development curve.
Horns, which establishes a great premise about a trod-upon small town guy who suddenly wakes up after a binge with horns and apparently the power to compel anyone around him to tell their darkest impulses out loud (for better worse), is a solid piece of work equally the match of virtually any other spec fiction novel out so far this year.
At first, despite his crisp and well-paced prose style, I was worried that Hill was already conceptually cribbing somewhat from the classic Salman Rushdie novel The Satanic Verses, at least insofar as a reference to an ordinary human ostensibly becoming the Devil as its base. But giving it its fair chance (something I do all too often but with most novels try to never run out of a ready supply), I kept reading and found that it was a far greater, more satisfying read. In some ways, far more grounded and accessible than Rushdie’s high-literary opus.
The main character of Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, son and brother of famous musicians while himself something of a lost figure in the the 21st century wild, is at once very familiar to most people reading it while at the same time capable of some amazing and unique insights. Believed by nearly his entire hometown to be guilty of the rape-murder of the love of his life, Merrin Williams, the year before the novel begins, he has effectively given up on just about everything. He drifts from one possibility to the next, usually in a state of numb, unbroken grieving and pain.
But waking one morning to find that he is suddenly sprouting horns and the ability to unconsciously compel complete strangers to blurt out their deepest, nastiest impulses…as well as a power to physically touch these same people and instantly know everything about them, even things they’ve hidden from themselves…Ig is a man with a new mission. Payback. Payback on every person who’s been stepping on him, lying to him, and most importantly…whoever really raped and killed the woman he had resolved since childhood to spend his life with.
But in taking command of his new abilities, Ig is finding out that people he loved are just as human, and nasty, as any strangers. They are just as capable of distrusting him and letting him down. His faith is dead, his trust in humanity is effectively shaken to pieces, and what about the fact that his new ‘powers’ seem to compel people to want to act out their worst dreams…including those dreams where they want to just shoot him in the face or hang him by his newly-horned neck?
Joe Hill paints a great and—I daresay almost plausible—image of a man who has learned that the Devil may be the most misrepresented figure in all of history and human spirituality. A liberator and powerful figure of human justice, not corruption and evil. Sin in the eyes of seeing it as liberating the human condition, rather than condemning it in the eyes of an absent God. Ig Perrish is learning that what humanity seems to need is a little less Heaven and maybe a lot more Hell. And he intends to make as many people as he can learn that lesson alongside him.
The pacing is solid, although at times I felt that Hill’s method of jumping back and forth between expository flashbacks to current events was a little uneven but not wholly inappropriate. His prose style is clean and yet doesn’t lack for metaphoric power. His characterizations are strong and consistent, and overall the experience is of reading a real and distinct voice in horror fiction, moreso than in his earlier lauded collection or novel efforts. Horns is, I believe, the first complete and total step Joe Hill has made to separate himself from the pack. After all, the devil is in the details.