Joe Hill

Horns (2013)

Horns (2013)

(On Cable TV, November 2015) Tone control is a tricky thing, and few films show this as well as Horns.  Adapting Joe Hill’s novel is not an easy proposition, considering how the book veers between comedy and horror and heartfelt redemption story.  Novelists can usually control tone better than directors: prose works differently, and what shows up on-screen often suffers from excessive literalism.  So it is that while Horns’ screenplay considerably simplifies and strengthens the book’s story (to the point where reading a synopsis of the book can feel like a comedy of overstuffed plotlines), this big-screen version can’t quite manage its transition from comedy to horror.  The film is best in its first half, as our protagonist discovers that he’s been cursed with invisible horns, the power of persuasion and a gift for allowing strangers to tell them their deepest secrets.  This leads to a number of very funny sequences, but those laughs get fewer and fewer as his newfound powers lead him to understand what happened on the night of his girlfriend’s murder –a murder for which he’s the prime suspect.  Chaos engulfs his small town, friends turn to enemies, parents can’t be trusted and the secrets he discover may not be the ones he wants to hear about.  Daniel Radcliffe is quite good in the lead role, with Juno Temple being as angelic as she can be as the (idealized?) dead girlfriend.  Despite Horns’ problems, this is Alexandre Aja’s least repulsive film yet and one that suggests that he may have a future beyond genre-horror shlock.   

Horns, Joe Hill

Horns, Joe Hill

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.

Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill

Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill

Morrow, 2007, 374 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-114793-7

A lot of people think it’s easy to write a horror novel. Just grab a disgusting monster, sick it on unsuspecting characters and let the deaths pile up. But that’s the kind of assumption that leads to formulaic extruded product and exactly the kind of thinking that practically destroyed horror as a genre publishing category in the early nineties. The monster-kills-people type of horror is only the easiest story the genre can tell, and the best examples of the genres manage to do a lot more than that.

Joe Hill’s debut Heart-Shaped Box is exactly the kind of novel that the horror genre should aspire to: It’s recognizably a horror story (what with a vengeful ghost and all), but it uses the framework of an implacable menace to take its characters on a deeper journey of self-discovery. Along the way, it touches upon other sub-genres: It’s a rock-and-roll novel, a road novel and a southern gothic family tragedy.

It starts off with a strong lead character, a heavy-metal icon way past his prime living out a quiet life in upstate New York. After years on tour, Judas Coyne has settled for semi-retirement, collecting disposable girlfriends and macabre mementos. All harmless enough, until -one day- Judas end up buying a ghost on-line, and having it delivered to his house. Unlike most eBay hoaxes, this one is for real, and it has a very personal issue to settle with Judas.

Heart-Shaped Box being a novel rather than a short story, getting rid of the ghost will take more than burning up his suit and taking to the road: As Judas discovers alongside a girlfriend who proves less disposable than he thought, the road to the ghost’s secrets is leading them south, to Florida and then to Louisiana, where Judas’ family lives. There are many terrifying moments along the way, and considerable personal injury.

But what raises Heart-Shaped Box above the usual horror schlock-fests are the ways in which it ties itself and its horrors to deeper human concerns. Judas may be stuck with a vengeful ghost who simply wants him dead, but the story ties up Judas’ own worst excesses, the sordid history of another family, his complicated relationship with his girlfriend and the broken ties with his own parents. Hill is able to blend all of those elements together without seeming too mechanistic or deliberate about it, and the way the novel gradually moves on to a bigger canvas than just a horror story is part of the book’s delight.

Lest this review launches itself in incomprehensible praise about “the human spirit” of the novel, it should also point out that this is a wonderfully readable and entertaining piece of work. Hill’s invention keeps things going, and his ability to set his horror in believable contemporary American location (including Denny’s restaurants) seems effortless, yet escapes a lot of other horror writers.

In short, it’s a pretty fascinating debut from a bright young light of the horror genre. Shortly after the publication of the novel, it was revealed that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and while the revelation add little to the book’s already striking qualities, it does highlight that Hill’s ability to mix the mundane and the supernatural, to use familiar elements of American culture to strengthen the horrific aspects of his story are indeed reminiscent of King’s best work. Still, Hill is already forging himself a distinct reputation: his work is solid, and readers will have a hard time waiting for his next novel.