“Horns” is the second book from author Joe Hill. After finishing “Heart-Shaped Box”, I was eager to dive right back into Hill’s mind, so I moved “Horns” to the top of my reading list. In the span of just the two books I have read from him, I have developed a healthy respect for both his writing style and his ability to take an unreal circumstance and use it to tell a very real story. I had high hopes for “Horns” and I was not disappointed.
“Horns” follows Ignatius “Ig” Perrish – a man wandering through life, just going through the motions. After the rape and murder of his long time love Merrin, Ig’s life fell apart. He was a suspect in her murder, but was never charged. That didn’t stop everyone in town from treating him like a pariah. Now, nearing the one-year anniversary of Merrin’s death, Ig awakens from a night of drunken mischief to make a startling discovery – he has grown a pair of horns on his head. As you might well guess, this causes him no small measure of concern.
The horns seem to possess strange powers. Whenever Ig is around someone, they want to confess their deepest, darkest secrets to him. They want him to give them permission to act upon their most base desires and fears. To make things even more interesting, if Ig touches someone, he instantly knows their inner thoughts, their desires, their wishes – even their sins. Ig quickly realizes that this might be his opportunity to find out what really happened to Merrin, and perhaps take revenge upon her killer.
Much like he did in “Heart-Shaped Box”, Hill uses the primary conceit of the story (in this case, the horns), as a means to the end of telling the larger story of the main characters and their relationship with each other. As the book progresses, we learn the entire story of Ig and Merrin through a series of flashbacks, recalls, and memories Ig pulls from the minds of those around him. As that story unfolds, you begin to understand how Ig got to a place where, waking up with horns growing from his head doesn’t seem so unlikely after all.
While I loved the idea of the horns and the way that Hill developed and used that concept, I think the true strength in this story is the relationship of Ig and Merrin. It’s the meat, where the demonic elements of the horns are the spice. That’s not to say that they horns themselves aren’t important. At the end of the story, once we have the entire picture, Hill does a wonderful job of bringing the premise full circle, and closing the loops for each of the characters in the story. As I have said before, I truly appreciate an author who not only takes the time to set up a great premise, but also pays it off in the end. (Over the years, this has been one of my main criticisms of Hill’s father – Stephen King. He’s great at the idea and the execution – not always so good at the ending. Go read “Tommyknockers” and you will see what I mean).
This story also shares a central theme with “Heart-Shaped Box” – that there is something more after death, and you can ultimately set a wrong to right. What Hill does so wonderfully here is to set up that moral, while turning the normal notion of good guy and bad guy on it’s ear. I’ll tell you what I mean, but I will have to use a few spoilers, so here’s your SPOILER ALERT in 3…2…1…
As Ig continues to transform and evolve during the story, it’s clear that he is literally and/or figuratively becoming the Devil – and yet you still feel sympathy and a connection to him. You find that many of the sins he encourages people to entertain, and the bad things that he does, are all done in the service of a greater good – understanding and avenging Merrin’s death. At one point, he even asks himself something to the effect of –“If God doesn’t like sin, and the Devil punishes sinners – aren’t they kind of on the same side?”. It’s an interesting question, and one that Hill uses to challenge the reader’s preconceived notions on who they should root for in the story, and just what defines a “happy ending”. Ok – SPOILERS ARE OVER.
I really enjoyed this story, and as I have mulled it over for the past few days, I find myself liking it more and more. It’s not a perfect story – but it has a unique and intriguing concept. It is well written in the same comfortable style of Hill’s other work. I would recommend it to anyone, if for no other reason that to have your notions of the hero archetype challenged. It’s an entertaining exercise in morality and philosophy, as well as a great examination of relationships and the secrets that we all keep lurking just below the surface. Give the book a try. You may just find that you can, in fact, have sympathy for the Devil.
If you have the hardback book, I suggest that you take a look on the inside cover. There is a message there in Morse code (once you read the book, the use of Morse code will make far more sense). It’s worth your time to sit down and decode it – it’s a sly nod to the spirit of the book. There is also a small nod to “Heart-Shaped Box” in the story when, at one point, there is a Judas Coyne song playing on the radio (with the hilarious observation by one of the characters that Coyne is “a guy whose idea of musical complexity is a song with four power chords instead of three”). Those are the touches that I love in a book – an acknowledgement of the constant reader, by the author. As a constant reader myself, those moments are priceless.
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