by Joe Hill
Published by Orion Books, 2010.
Joe Hill emerged onto the horror scene, fully formed, with Heart Shaped Box in 2007 it wasn’t perfect but it, and his excellent short fiction collection Twentieth Century Ghosts, showed he was one talented writer happy to wear his horror heart on his sleeve. His recent novella Gunpowder was another triumph with strong characters and a moving, emotional plotline. Now, along comes Horns, the ‘difficult’ second novel.
Horns begins with a literary thunderbolt. Ignatius Perrish (Ig) wakes up having grown a set of Horns. The first section of the book is a dark, bleak look at Ig’s life which is in tatters following the murder of his girlfriend, Merrin, a murder which everyone, including his own family think he committed. At this stage it’s hard to feel sympathy for Ig who appears to live a fairly squalid life but then amidst all this gloom we are taken back to carefree childhood days and the true story of Ig, Merrin, his brother Terry and friend Lee is described in a series of flashbacks.
As the story unfolds so does the readers sympathy and empathy for Ig which seems at odds with his evolving demonic status. It’s this and the finger it points at the very heart of religion which gives the book a great and very powerful motif. We all have dark sides and Ig’s horns give him the ability to have people tell him their innermost dirty secrets and thoughts.
This is Joe Hill’s best book so far, to be honest the blurb and other descriptions I have read undersell it. They tend to portray the Horns as a jokey gimmick, oh look it’s a guy with horns what fun we can have. In reality it is both a curse and a blessing but either way, a very powerful portrayal of the inner struggle of good versus evil. It asks some powerful questions of the reader but lets the reader come up with their own answers.
The book manages to deal with some major themes without getting bogged down in exposition, pace is expertly controlled throughout. Within are Joe Hill’s most powerful and rounded characters, light, shade and all the nuances in between are used to colour them. With flashes of Ray Bradbury’s melancholia, large doses of Peter Straub’s awareness of mortality and more than a hint of Stephen King’s powerful characterisation this becomes a fully rounded and very powerful piece of work.
This struck me as a poignant and apt description – “He had inherited his father’s most precious gift: The more he practices at a thing, the less practised it sounded and the more natural and unexpected and lively it became.” I wonder if he was thinking the same thing when he wrote that, as I was when I read it?
Given Joe Hill’s age, he has a remarkably bright future. If he continues to improve exponentially, as he has to date, we are in for some real treats. Horns is literate, clever, disturbing and enlightening, all the things good horror should be. Highly recommended.
Rating 4.5 out of 5