“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances.”
Let’s get some housekeeping out of the way right up front: Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, the “master of horror” and one of the best-selling novelists of all time. There. We’ve said it.
Now we can discuss Horns, which is a horror novel set in New England that features readable, everymanish prose and numerous pop culture references. It will probably be made into an inferior film. Well, maybe that Stephen King connection can’t be so easily dismissed.
Horns is the story of Ig Perrish, who wakes up one morning after a night of debauchery to find devil’s horns sprouting from his head. Ig’s life has been shattered by the rape and murder of his girlfriend/soul mate, Merrin, a year earlier – a crime which most members of his hometown believe Ig is guilty of committing.
Along with the horns come new satanic powers, including access to people’s darkest impulses and desires. This ability ultimately leads to the discovery of Merrin’s true killer.
On one level, Horns is a fairly simple revenge story. Beneath the basic plot line, however, Hill wrestles with a number of intriguing philosophical and theological issues. Foremost among these is the fundamental question of moral theology: If God is all-powerful, why does He allow terrible things to happen to good people? In other words, why does evil exist?
To Hill’s credit, Horns is not a “message” novel and offers no pat answers to these unanswerable questions. However, hi portrayal of the post-transformation Ig – possessed of the devil’s powers, but retaining his essential human decency – is one of the more original creations in recent fiction. In addition, Hill’s tough-and-tender prose is perfectly suited to a novel which combines satanic horror with a sweet love story.
While reading Horns, I was reminded of the recent (and much underappreciated) Ricky Gervais film, The Invention of Lying. The movie takes place in an alternate reality in which no one has ever lied and where people bluntly say whatever is on their mind. The film is structured as a traditional romantic comedy (just as Horns is structured as a traditional horror novel), but ultimately grapples with important theological questions and implies that religion is only possible in a world that has the ability to lie.
Both Hill’s book and Gervais’ film involve a high-concept plot device that serves as a platform for an exploration of complex ideas that are rarely addressed so effectively in contemporary popular culture. They both present the possibility that, under the right circumstances, sinful deeds can in fact be moral acts.
The book and film also propose that a certain degree of self-deception is necessary to endure life’s difficulties. As a character in Horns says, “The people you love should be allowed to keep their worst to themselves.”
On the debit side, Horns at times feels too neatly constructed. Too many character names have rather obvious antecedents, including Merrin and Regan (taken from The Exorcist). Snakes, crosses, and pitchforks play major roles in the plot and the devilish double entendres begin to seem somewhat obvious and clichéd. The “sympathy for the devil” aspect of the story manifests itself too overtly in the title of the last section of the book: “The Gospel According to Mick and Keith”.
Another recurring motif is that of a cherry, with implications ranging from youthful virginity to explosives to forbidden fruit. Characters wear ties more often than seems necessary, so Hill can use them as symbols of bondage. It’s unnaturally hot in New Hampshire throughout the short time span of the novel, presumably so the setting can seem more hellish.
These elements feel artificial and a bit forced. Even stories in which the main character metamorphoses into a devil need to maintain a level of real-world believability, and at times Hill strains to weave together his themes and images. These are relatively minor quibbles, however, for a novel which not only delivers horrific thrills and emotional resonance but also provokes thought and philosophical debate about the nature of guilt, sin, and redemption.
In Horns, Hill has found a nice balance between the straight horror of Heart-Shaped Box, his first novel, and the more nuanced, character-driven stories in 20th Century Ghosts, his excellent first collection of short fiction. Even more encouraging is the feeling one gets that Hill, at age 37, is a mature but still developing writer and that his best work is ahead of him.
It will be interesting to see if he remains tied to the horror/dark fantasy genre or if he surprises us with a completely different kind of novel. Regardless, his is among the brightest young voices in fiction today.