Sunday, September 1, 2013
Review: Horns, by Joe Hill
Ignatius Perrish wakes up to the worst hangover of his life. It's so bad, in fact, he has sprouted devil horns on his head. Not only that, but people begin behaving oddly around him. The receptionist at the doctor's office discloses that she wants to scream at a woman whose child is misbehaving in the waiting room. When Ig sits next to this woman, she touches his arm and he suddenly sees all of her bad deeds. Then she unabashedly tells him of her desire to kick her daughter in the ass, literally. What Ig, and the reader, gradually begin to realize is that with these horns comes a supernatural power that causes people to want to act out their darkest desires, but only if Ig grants them permission. He can't even hold a normal conversation with his parents or brother. This is even more terrifying when you discover certain details about his past.
I won't reveal too much, because there's a surprise early on I don't want to spoil. The novel gradually feeds us information about Ig's past life. We learn that his girlfriend, perhaps even soul mate, Merrin, was raped and murdered just the past year, and the entire town thinks Ig committed the crime. But the case never went to trial because of a fire that destroyed DNA evidence. With his new powers, Ig learns things from people, awful things that have to do with what they think of him. He goes to his church to see if Father Mould can help, only to learn the pastor believes Ig should hang himself. Also, Father Mould has been having an affair with Merrin's mother. Ig becomes wary about meeting other people because of these terrible revelations. At the same time, he finds it thrilling to take revenge on those who speak so cruelly about him, forcing them to act out on their dark desires in ways that hurt them.
Part of what makes the novel work so well is the complexity of its main characters. Ig is the good guy in that he has enough of a conscience to deny most people to act out on their dark desires. Yet he's still human. He can't help but act on his baser desires for revenge and power because it excites him. There's something cathartic about his ability to do something evil and get away with it. Even the novel's villain has complexities. This is important to bring up because it's one area where King struggled (or maybe didn't care so much). Most of King's heroes and villains are one-dimensional characters (with varying degrees of effectiveness) who tend to act predictably. A King hero has only minor flaws, while a King villain has absolutely no redeeming qualities. Hill, on the other hand, aims for more human complexities.
When I say Hill's writing style is dry, I don't mean it as a criticism. His voice is mostly straight forward, get to the point, with the occasional parenthetical quip. His humor is told dryly, though often to hilarious effect. Hill's writing is also witty, without being obvious or showy. One example of his wit is the novel's title. Horns most obviously refers to the pair of horns growing from Ig's head. Yet we also learn that Ig's father made his fortune playing horns, and his brother Terry has also made his fortune doing the same, while Ig's asthma prevented him from following suit. Horns, then, may symbolize the past and/or missed opportunities.
Hill is at his most thought-provoking when discussing religion. He twists themes of good and evil on their head by positing the devil as the good guy. Ig is, after all, an incarnation of the devil, yet he is repulsed by the dark secrets people reveal to him and forbids most from acting on them. In a sense, then, the devil serves as a moral authority above those who feel the influence of his horns. Hill relishes in the idea that God and the devil are partners more than they are adversaries. The devil punishes sinners, and if God wants sinners punished, aren't the two on the same side? Ig comes to a lot of interesting, and sometimes funny, conclusions regarding religion that some may find controversial, but the open-minded will enjoy pondering.
For the most part, the novel's pacing is superb. The way Hill slowly reveals Ig's powers is exciting. Here is an author who knows the virtues of patient plotting. The story begins in the middle of the action, with Ig discovering his horns, and then it goes backwards so the reader can learn more about the major players and events that give the present more significance. The rest of the novel goes back and forth between the past and present until the reader has a near complete picture of Ig's relationship to Merrin and others, as well as what happened the fateful night Merrin was killed. A few of the flashback chapters were superfluous. This is especially true regarding the villain. Explaining why a character becomes a villain tends to ruin the magic of the story. Some people are just evil, no explanation needed.
The real disappointment I have is with the ending. It devolves into your usual action showdown, involving a battered hero and a villain who takes a breather to explain everything. Worst of all, this happens twice. People complain about the way King ends his books, and sometimes he does end them in bizarre fashion, but I prefer non-traditional sorts of endings. The ending to The Dead Zone was excellent, and it made sense. According to King, Hill helped change the ending to 11/22/63, which I thought had a disappointing ending because it playing things safe. Plenty of people will be happy with the ending to Horns, I'm sure, because it's comfortable in its use of recognizable tropes. I feel like it's an insult to the care Hill put in the rest of his story. Nonetheless he shows remarkable talent. I look forward to seeing Daniel Radcliffe star in the title role of the movie. I also look forward to reading more of Joe Hill's work, as I'm sure he will be a mainstay for a long, long time.