BEASTLY BOOKS: HORNS BY JOE HILL
You would think that a book about a man turning into a devil would be pure horror, but Horns, Joe Hill’s second novel, is as much drama, albeit one which uses the supernatural to deepen and amplify the story’s essentially tragic nature.
Horns begins with Iggy Parrish waking up the morning after a drunken bender to find horns growing out of his head. Almost as strange, he finds everyone he meets confessing their deepest, darkest secrets… including their real feelings about him. Iggy, you see, is generally presumed by his neighbours to have raped and murdered his long-time girlfriend Merrin the year previous; the only reason he’s still walking the streets is because his rich parents arranged for incriminating evidence to be destroyed, they assume. Soon enough, though, Ig is able to use his new powers, which include influencing the will of those around him, to find out who really killed Merrin.
Hill, in case you don’t know, is Stephen King’s son, and not to belabour the fact or draw ill-informed comparisons (because I haven’t read a book by the elder King in two decades) but he has his dad’s knack for subtle characterization, black humour, moments of sickening violence , and a genuine empathy for human frailty. Fans of King’s work will appreciate his son’s writing, but it succeeds on its own merits, not simply by virtue of who his father is.
The plot of Horns revolves around not simply who murdered Merrin (we learn the killer’s identity pretty early on) but also how and why it happened, as well as its impact on Ig’s life and the life of the entire town. Hill fractures the narrative timeline and uses Ig’s ability to know everything about a person by simply touching them to reconstruct what exactly happened that ill-fated night. But the circumstances of Merrin’s death, of course, are complex, coloured by misunderstanding, self-interest and guilt depending upon whose version of events we are being subjected to. The result is a Rashomon-style retelling of events which turns out to be far more than a simple crime of passion.
The plot’s driver – we continue to read after discovering who killed Merrin because we want to see Ig’s revenge – soon enough becomes secondary to our interest in finding out what will become of Ig. With each page turned, Ig’s transformation into an actual devil progresses. There’s also a metaphorical transformation occurring and it’s sickly fascinating to follow along.
Horns contains its fair share of grisly images and acts of violence, but Joe Hill is not Stephen King. There be monsters here, but Horns is primarily about the darkest corners of the human heart, shining a light into the places in our minds that no one wants to acknowledged.
I guess that is horror, isn’t it?