When Joe Hill broke into mainstream literature with 2007s “HEART SHAPED BOX” there was a very distinct, personal apprehension to admitting to the public that he was the eldest of literary legend Stephen King. The reluctance to make such a confession is completely understandable. After all, no one wants to stand in the shadow of their peers, much less one that casts one so looming as King, and especially when they have enough of their own talent to not need such a connection. So if “HEART SHAPED BOX” was an introduction to what readers could expect to see from the growing writer in the future, then “HORNS” is the casting of the gauntlet. Let it be known: Joe Hill is the future of spine-tingling literature. A man whose own shadow will now have to serve as the dark blanket from which all others after him must climb out from under.
The story follows Ignatious Perrish (Ig for short) who has lost everything. His beautiful and stunning long time girlfriend has been brutally raped and murdered in the woods where he spent much of his youth. A man that once had it all, a popular and wealthy family, a brother who was on his way to Hollywood super-stardom, and the woman of his dreams. But now that is a thing of the past. Now everyone in his small hometown hates Ig, and blames him for Merrin’s death under the assumption that his wealthy parents paid the right people, made the right calls, and let their son get away with murder. The world has left Ig nothing but his old 70s Gremlin and a broken soul. That is until Ig wakes up the morning after the anniversary of Merrin’s murder with two painful horns growing from his temples. Horns that seem to grant Ig an odd and fascinating power over those who look at them. Now Ig has the power to make anyone tell him their deepest, darkest secrets. Further, all Ig must do is touch a person and he will see all the skeletons in their closet. Now, armed with all the abilities he will need to hunt down those responsible for ruining his life, Ignatious Perrish will travel down a road that promises to reveal the twisted side of those around him, the sorted truth behind the pasts of those he loves, and eventually to the man who took away his soul.
“HORNS” is a complete and utter departure from the kind of stories Hill has brought readers in the past. The ‘horror’ element is relative here. Hill isn’t trying to scare the pants off of anyone, but trying to tell a story. At its heart “HORNS” is a story of growing up. A coming of age story about a young man who isn’t anyone to marvel at. He has asthma which disqualifies him from playing the horn like his father and brother. He lacks the charisma and sense of humor of Terry, who now hosts his own television show in Hollywood. He doesn’t possess the charming looks and persuasive tongue of his childhood best friend, Lee. For all intents and purposes Ig is a normal man who is just happy living the American dream.
What sets the story apart from those of its ilk is its inate ability to act as charming as it is depressing. We are often shot from the horrors that have befallen Ig in the present to the warmer memories of his youth growing up in a small town. Of particular interest among these memories is the summer of Ig and Merrin’s meeting. The love story between the two is expertly done, and when the two finally come together there is an established care for each of them that has been artfully woven throughout the story. Both characters are completely likable although they suffer some very unflattering flaws. These flaws however, are what set their relationship apart from those like them. Neither character is as untainted as they appear from the outside, and once their true colors begin to show the reader will find themselves investing their emotions into the lovers as opposed to being turned off by them. Why? Because if there is anything that readers should find revolting in literature it is characters who are made to be so squeaky clean it is almost as if you are being forced into liking them. There is no gun to the readers head in Joe Hill’s approach. Instead the author simply puts the story before the reader and lets them draw their own conclusions.
That being said some readers might find the content of “HORNS” not only blasphemous, but down right offensive. Ig’s last night spent without the horns he uses to get drunk at the site of Merrin’s death and pee on a statuette of the Virgin Mary amongst other things. While some would find this offensive it has to be understood that this is also a story of a man’s grief over the loss of the woman he loved for the most influential 10 years of his life. As such it is completely conceivable that someone in his shoes would do something like this in their drunken grieving. The long and short is that this is a truly human character. Well, minus the superpowers and “LEGEND” like head gear.
As for the horns themselves there is a case to be made that the main flaw of the novel is that there is never a clear reason given as to why Ig has grown his horns. There is plenty of touches and hints given by Hill so that the readers can draw their own conclusions, and to give away anything would serve as a disservice to the story. However, the horns themselves seem to be only a colorful inflection set forth to add flavor to a much broader story, and not something that readers should go into expecting to be the main focus of the book they’re holding. This is not a story of a superhero bent on avenging a loved one. Ignatious Perrish is not Peter Parker.
That being said, as I stated previously the horror element itself is on the backburner. The real horror of the novel is presented as the evils of man, and what those around us and those we love are truly capable of doing, feeling, and hiding. As the story unfolds itself with Ig confronting those around him with his horns, the truth of how those around Ig view the man in the face of the beast is the the most horrible part of all. None of this is to say that there isn’t some good horror in parts. There is also violence throughout, and when it comes to getting down to business Hill doesn’t pull any punches. The villain working within the story is truly detestable, but at the same to eerily relatable. This aspect in and of itself might be what readers find the most horrifying. That they have been presented a man who is not utterly insane and completely psychotic, but someone whose feelings and actions feel far to human. Perhaps even more human than what Ig eventually becomes.
It is also important to note the amazing pacing that has been used to bring this book to life. The story itself unfolds at an alarming high speed, never stopping so that the reader can take a breath. If Hill didn’t write “HORNS” with the thought that it would one day be adapted into a film then he has unwittingly done Hollywood a large favor. There is never a moment in the 300+ pages of “HORNS” that feels like it is filler. The entire story lays itself out like a long and winding highway to the deepest bowels of hell and spits you out the other end feeling exhausted. It is almost astonishing how far Hill has come as a writer in such a short amount of time between major works.
When all is done and read “HORNS” is a contemporary masterwork of literature that is as subtle as a punch in the kidneys. A story that will haunt your mind and demand that you finish it at the breakneck pace of which it is written. Joe Hill is now among the greats of today, no longer a question mark among critics as to whether or not he will one day be the next great horror auteur. If “HORNS” is not my top fiction pick for 2010 then this will truly be the best year for horror literature we have seen in quite some time.
4.5 Out of 5 Skulls