Horns, by Joe Hill — a book review

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Prior to reading this novel, I read Hill’s first published novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and a collection of his short stories, 20th Century Ghosts.

I loved both of these books. This first was a horror novel about an aging death-metal rocker who purchases a ghost online. It elevated a run-of-the-mill ghost story into something infused with bass-heavy, evil rock-‘n’-roll. The short story collection showed the tremendous range and ferocious imagination of Joe Hill himself. He can write magical and whimsical with the same proficiency as he writes unsettling and scary. It’s all on display here.

While Horns is only the third of his books that I’ve read, I’m aware that Joe Hill has other things out there. I watched the first seasons of the television series based on his novel NOS4A2 and his comic book series Locke & Key. My mom, who’s still kicking up dust in South Carolina, sent me a copy of his novel The Fireman, which I haven’t read yet. It’s only fair, since I was the one who first got her to read Stephen King, back in the ’70s.

It’s no secret these days that Joe Hill is the pen name of Joe Hillstrom King, the middle child and eldest son of novelists Stephen and Tabitha King. I didn’t know this when I read his first novel, and I respect his reluctance to ride his father’s coat tails. Now that Hill’s proven himself as a writer, he has even collaborated with his father on several things I haven’t read yet. Since Hill is obviously drawn to horror tropes and things of a fantastical nature, his work would naturally be compared to that of his father.

Like Stephen King or Ray Bradbury, Joe Hill has mastered the art of introducing a ridiculous premise and convincing the reader that it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Whether that is the story of someone who wakes up as a giant insect one morning or a human boy whose body is made of inflatable plastic, these “conditions” are presented in a believable, matter-of-fact way and the story is allowed to grow organically from that point of acceptance. Hill’s stories never seem to be about convincing you that his premise is realistic. They don’t seem to often address “how” or “why” something is happening. That’s never as important as “what happens next.”

If the accepted definition of magical realism is fiction that seems like a realistic view of the world, just with some magical elements tossed into the mix, Joe Hill has become a master of that fictional style. I thought about Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis when I read Hill’s short story about waking up as a giant insect (how could I not?). And, I thought of it again when I began reading this novel, proving that my public school education may not have been a complete waste of time.

Kafka’s story, in case you don’t remember, started this way (translated from German):

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous bug.

Or something to that effect, depending upon the translation. A simple statement of fact. Gregor Samsa is now a bug. He wasn’t transformed by a witch or by a radioactive meteor passing through the atmosphere or anything like that. As far as we know. He just simply is a bug.

Horns begins in the following way:

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.

Just like that. Iggy Perrish wakes up with horns. A statement of fact. Without saying it outright, Joe Hill is saying, “This is the premise, and now I’m going to tell you what happens next.” Of course, in this case, what happens next is predicated quite a bit on what happened before the “now” of our story. So, we’re treated to a lot in flashback. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though. More on that in a bit.

My thesis is that Hill presents the reader with a ridiculous situation and then proceeds to treat it realistically.

As a long-time fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy, in all media, I am practiced at suspending my disbelief. A high school student gets bitten by a radioactive spider and now has the proportionate strength and abilities of a spider. Well, okay. Faster-than-light travel has made the galaxy a smaller place, and Earth is part of a huge peacekeeping (though sometimes warlike) federation of planets. Sure, then what happens? An android has been sent from the future to kill someone important in the past. How are we going to stop it?

My wife doesn’t like suspending her disbelief too much. If the premise is too outlandish, she is unable to stick around for the story, no matter how well-told. That’s how I know she wouldn’t like this novel. She wouldn’t read past the part where this guy woke up with horns on his head.

If this describes you, even a little bit, then this book probably isn’t for you either.

Horns is structured into five sections of ten chapters each. Each section is tackling a different phase of this story.

I had a lot of fun with the first section, titled “Hell.” Iggy is finding out about his new horns and some of the abilities they give him. One thing the horns do is encourage people to reveal their secrets and innermost thoughts to Iggy. As Iggy makes his rounds in public, this leads to a few comical interactions. But, Iggy soon discovers the downside of these newfound powers. Prior to the beginning of the novel (which begins in medias res, truthfully), Iggy’s girlfriend Merrin was brutally murdered, and Iggy has been dealing with this loss, badly, ever since. He was considered the chief suspect in the case, and as Iggy travels through town, he discovers that he still is. Even his own parents think he’s guilty. At the end of this section, Iggy finds out who actually killed his girlfriend.

The next 10-chapter section—”Cherry”—is an extended flashback detailing how Iggy met his girlfriend and how he became friends with Lee Tourneau. There’s a lot I like in this section, and some vivid imagery. But, the story feels a little derailed. I didn’t like knowing that Merrin would be murdered before I even got to meet her. I know that sounds like a petty thing, but the context kind of marred this section for me, which had its cute moments like the Evel Knievel trail (establishing the foundry as an important setting we’ll come back to) and Merrin using her crucifix to send Ig a Morse code message while in church. I almost wished I got to read all of this prior to the first section, and I somehow feel that’s the way it was originally written.

The section “The Fire Sermon” delivers the details of what happened on the day of Merrin’s murder. Plus, we see what happens when Ig goes to confront her killer. There’s also a bit about Ig and Merrin discovering a magical treehouse in the woods, which they call “The Treehouse of the Mind.” This felt like it was part of a different story. I’ve already accepted the sudden appearance of magical horns. This acceptance doesn’t carry over to magic treehouses. It’s like a friend of mine has said, about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a story where he’s accepted the existence of vampires and Slayers, robots seem like a violation of laws of the fictional universe. We have to draw a line, even with our willing suspension of disbelief.

In the section “The Fixer,” our third-person-limited perspective shifts to that of the actual killer. While disturbing, there’s nothing really supernatural or magical in this section.

The final section is “The Gospel According to Mick and Keith,” which is, of course, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. The story winds down to its inevitable ending, taking us back to the foundry. There’s fire and snakes and the inevitable showdown with the killer. The conclusion of the story is somewhat satisfying, but is muddled by some of the magical things I mentioned earlier.

I am still a huge fan of Joe Hill’s writing. But this is my least-favorite thing of his I’ve read yet. That’s okay. We can just get that out of the way. It’s not a bad novel at all, but it does seem to sag somewhat under the weight of its ambitious themes. I suppose it’s impossible to avoid some meditation on the nature of evil when you’re giving your protagonist a set of magical devil horns. I think I would have preferred a straightforward story rather than the in medias res framing device. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in flashback, which tends to impede the forward progress of the story.

Firewater’s Pleased-to-Meet-You-Hope-You-Guessed-My-Name Report Card: B

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Not the author’s best work, but it won’t keep me from reading whatever else he publishes.

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