Morrow, 2010, 370 pages, C$27.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-114795-1
Joe Hill is one of the most brilliant new horror writers, one who justifies the recent migration of genre horror novels from mass-market paperbacks to hardcovers. His second novel, Horns, follows in the footstep of his debut Heart-Shaped Box in showing how, unlike some of his more gore-oriented colleagues, Hill seems to be using horror as a mechanism through which damaged characters can work out personal issues, rather than an end in itself.
Hill’s stories usually begins with an intriguing character, and our protagonist Ignatius Martin Perrish (“Ig” for most of the novel) is an interesting guy: Physically frail, member of a rich and influential family, blessed with the love of a good woman, Ig saw his good fortune disappear when his girlfriend was found murdered a year before the novel begins. Immediately suspected of killing her, Ig was never formally charged… but in small north-eastern towns, it doesn’t take paperwork for a community to condemn someone. As Horns begins, Ig has spent a year in purgatory, consumed by grief, unable to work and ostracized even by his family. On the first anniversary of the murder, Ig goes out, gets drunk and indulges in minor desecration. The following morning, he wakes up with horns growing out of his forehead, and an uncanny ability to make other people blurt out their darkest, deepest desires.
The story begins with a bang the moment Ig stares into the mirror and sees the horns. Within pages, strangers tell him things no one should ever share: confessions of gluttony, lust and wrath. Ig just has to be in their presence for secrets and desires to be expressed. But as soon as he turns his back, people forget both about his horns and their own revelations. Soon, Ig can’t help but learn everyone’s true opinion about him and they are damning: Everyone thinks he killed his own girlfriend, and used his family’s influence to avoid charges. But confession by confession, Ig also learns clues that allow him to piece together the identity of the murderer, and the revelation is nothing short of shocking. As his horns grow and his devil-like qualities develop, Ig also learns the fine art of revenge…
Horns has a lot of things going for it, but none of them are as potent as its mixture of clear prose, attention to character and ability to ground its fantastical premise in believable details. Ig’s personal history is gradually revealed in detail, allowing us to understand the tapestry of loyalties, betrayals, guilt and cover-ups that have so affected his life. Horns could have used its premise in a very different fashion, but it ends up become one character’s journey to understanding and ultimate expiation.
Which isn’t to say that Horns is a perfect novel. Many of the clever devilish puns and references only makes sense to those steeped in Judaeo-Christian mythology and North-American cultural references: I wonder how much sense the book can make to someone coming from other contexts (or even someone who hasn’t paid attention in a while to religious teachings about hell and the devil.) More seriously, the novel’s structure is generous in multi-chapters flashbacks, and the roaring opening doesn’t accurately reflect the rest of the novel as it soon takes on a more contemplative quality. At times, the story seems to meander off-track to such an extent that we’re left wondering how much better it could have been if it had been published as a novella. As it is, the novel never misses out on an occasion to explain in great flashback-reinforced detail almost all of the passing references that could have been left alone.
But novellas don’t sell, and Horns’ accumulation of explanations ends up sketching a remarkably lived-in background for the protagonist. There’s a fundamental pleasure in the kind of character study that Hill delivers with this novel, and it’s different from the one we can get from a straight-ahead horror thriller. Horns may look like the latter at the end of its first few chapters, but it’s a different beast by the end of it.
Most of the elements that made Heart-Shaped Box such a success are just as skilfully used in this second novel: The down-on-his-luck character, the fascination for music (including a Morse code tip-of-the-hat to an obvious musical inspiration on the book’s endpapers), the sly humour, the interest for personal atonement, the precise prose… it places Hill somewhere between the literary mainstream and the thrills of the horror genre: a great niche for such a promising writer.