Hill’s 2010 novel Horns tells the story of Ignatius Perrish, a man attempting to live his life in the aftermath of his girlfriend’s brutal raping and killing. Ig, despite the lack of evidence, is blamed for Merrin’s death by many of the residents of his small town. The novel opens with Ig waking up after a hazy, mostly forgotten night of drinking. He’s hungover, depressed, and to add to it all, Ig wakes up with horns. The story takes off from there, and we follow Ig around as he figures out what happened to his head, what happened to his girlfriend, and what’s going to happen to his life. The horns give him a sort of power over people in which they end up unintentionally telling him their deepest desire and most secret thoughts, and it often leads to unpleasant revelations. The resulting novel is a dark and beautiful thing.
Just so we’re honest with each other right away, the quality of my response to this book is somewhere around “OhgodIloveitsomuch.” I mean, I’ll try for something better here, but now you know from where I’m coming.
One of the (many) reasons this book works is Joe Hill’s expert way of dealing with time. While much of the story is told retrospectively (what happened with Ig and Merrin the night she died, told from several different perspectives; how Ig and Merrin met; etc), Hill has an ability to juxtapose the past with the present in a way that improves both. The really great effect of this is that our understanding of Ig and his actions gains both depth and sympathy as we progress through the novel; in seeing the past through his eyes, we can see how he feels wronged and sympathize, but when we see the events of his past through other eyes, we feel that wrong ourselves and begin to empathize. It’s a really beautifully woven novel in terms of the organization and chronology. I know that sounds very intro level English, but Joe Hill takes what should be basic standards for writing and raises them to a whole new level.
Given the cover and the first chapter (in which we learn Ig has horns), it doesn’t seem to be a stretch for the person picking this book up to assume that it is at least going to do something with the ‘let’s take a closer look at the/a devil’ trope. And of course, that brings along with it a whole host of possibilities for an author to hop up on his or her respective soapbox and tell the reader all about Sin, the nature of humanity, religion, and blah blah blah. You know, those big, tough topics that, when done poorly not only bore the socks off of you, but also make you put the book down as fast as possible. Well, as soon as you have a character with horns who can pull out the things people don’t want to admit, you’re already in that territory. Fortunately, Joe Hill knows what the hell he’s doing, and those big topics, the ones you hear about in Philosophy class and from your grandparents over a cup of tea on the porch, are gestured at but never get in the way of story. It never felt like Hill was up on his soapbox, and though Ig is put in situations where he’s having theoretical or philosophical thinky thoughts, it always works because the situation demands it. It ends up feeling natural and logical, and it becomes a part of the narrative instead of a digression for the sake of the reader’s soul.
Horns is a relatively quick read, but it packs more into a few hundred pages than some books manage in a thousand. This book has made me really excited to read Hill’s other works. He has another novel (Heart Shaped Box), a collection of short stories (20th Century Ghosts), and is the author of a graphic novel series (Locke & Key). If any of you have read any of these, feel free to comment! We’d love to hear your thoughts.
I gladly give Horns five enormous helpings of lasagna and wish that there was more left in the pan to dish out.