Monday, September 20, 2010
Horns by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2010)
Stephen King is one of the world's most accomplished novelists, but he might not even be the best writer in his own family. His son Joe Hill stakes a strong claim to that title with his incredible second novel Horns--a book that balances gut-wrenching horror with belly-clutching humor.
Near the one-year anniversary of the unsolved rape and murder of his beloved girlfriend Merrin, protagonist Ig Perrish visits the shrine set up where her body had been discovered (in the New Hampshire woods, close to where an abandoned foundry looms like a ruined castle). In his drunken stupor, Ig performs some unremembered act of obscenity, one that leads him to wake up the next day with a pair of devil horns sprouting from his head. These horns, Ig soon discovers, exert a terrible power: the mere sight of them causes others to speak with no conscious filter, confessing their dirtiest secrets to Ig and seeking his approval of their most sinful urges. Scenes of dark hilarity ensue as Ig learns what the people he encounters really think of him (wait until you read how Ig reacts to his grandmother's grotesque inner feelings).
Horns hooks readers with its fantastic premise, but reels them ever inward with its nested mysteries. Who could have murdered Merrin? What secret was Merrin hiding--why did she suddenly break up with Ig on the night she was killed? What did Ig actually do to get his devil horns? What was the Morse-coded message Merrin flashed Ig in church when they first met as children? What is the significance of "the treehouse of the mind" that Ig and Merrin later stumble upon as young lovers? The answers to these questions prove as elusive as the snakes slithering by the hundreds through the novel.
As engrossing as the book's plot is, though, readers will still want to slow down enough to relish Hill's prose. (Some selected gems: "Besides: The language of sin was universal, the original Esperanto"; "His tongue moved sluggishly around in his mouth, an eel swimming in blood"; "Lit from behind by the August sun, the tissues within [the mammogram] looked like a black sun, going nova, looked like the End of Days, and the sky was as sackcloth."). Indeed, this is a novel that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. For instance, there's the satisfaction gained from seeing a despicable villain finally receive his comeuppance for everything he's done to Ig and Merrin. At the same time, part of the fun lies in tracking the various devilish in-jokes: the Exorcist-referencing character names, the bar-restaurant christened "The Pit," Lucifer matches, devilled eggs, Rolling Stone song lyrics, the pitchfork Ig finds at the foundry and carries around with him...
The multi-talented Hill has crafted a novel that at once offers pitch-black comedy, dark fantasy, action and suspense, profundity and profanity. Even as Ig (and by extension, Horns) grows increasingly infernal, the narrative remains rooted in a heartwarming love story. If there is a better, more versatile American Gothic novel published in 2010, I cannot wait to read that book. Simply put, Horns is one helluva accomplishment.