The title of Joe Hill’s second novel encapsulates the problem facing its main character – Horns. Ignatius “Ig” Perrish wakes up after a hard night of drinking brought on by the one-year anniversary of his girlfriend’s murder. He may not have his memories of the previous night, but he does have horns. Actual, bony protuberances. A logical trip to the hospital finds the horns aren’t the only unusual thing about Ig.
He has the ability to make people around him disclose their innermost thoughts, sinful fantasies and confessions of past and planned crimes. If he touches someone, he sees their sinful pasts. If he thinks about it, he can make them act on their worst desires.
The first few people Ig listens in on confirm one of his worst fears. Everyone believes he’s guilty of murdering and raping his girlfriend, Merrin. Even the local priest isn’t immune to what Ig suspects is the horns’ Satanic influence. Nor are his parents who just wish Ig would go away. His brother, who hosts a late-night talk show, falls under the horns’ spell and tells Ig who really murdered Merrin. And all of this happens in the first fifth of the book.
In a typical horror novel, Ig would embark on a quest to rid himself of the horns and seek justice. But Hill isn’t a typical horror writer. Instead of rejecting the evil of the horns, Ig embraces it, finding it second nature to encourage people to act out their desires. Ig isn’t a hero in the conventional sense of the word.
It could be hard to root for him to succeed – usually a reader cheers for the characters fighting the devil – but traditional good and evil don’t apply here. Hill doesn’t take a black-and-white view of the world in Horns; it’s grey streaked with darks and lights. Perhaps the question underlying the novel’s events is whether evil is necessary.
Where Hill hits his stride is in the extended flashbacks to younger versions of the main characters. The novel becomes a coming-of-age story where teenagers do stupid teenage things that create bonds between them lasting well into adulthood. The allure of cherry bombs (made before child protection laws) sets off a chain of events that introduces Ig to Lee, who becomes his best friend and the third player in the Ig-Merrin relationship.
Lee has his own issues to deal with as an adult, and the clichés a lesser author might trot out never come to pass. The characters are complicated and fully realized. Even minor characters enter with a full history. The reader has the impression Hill knows all of his characters down to what brand of toothpaste they use. Hill’s talented so he doesn’t feel the need to put everything he knows about the character down on the page. It’s enough that he knows and uses that knowledge to inform the choices the characters make.
The novel holds more than well-drawn characters. Hill writes exciting action sequences that send the reader along with Ig on his journeys down the Evel Knievel trail. It is all too easy to immerse yourself into the novel – seeing a cherry tree and hearing a trumpet play – and devour the book in one sitting.
The flashbacks can hold more attraction than the present-day pieces, but that may be because they tell the story of before Ig’s life fell apart. As the horns become more important to who Ig is (and snakes begin to follow him), the reader starts to look for signs Ig will find a way out, that good will prevail and innocence will take the day. These things happen … and they don’t. Not all questions are answered by the last page. And the ones that are don’t come with a nicely tied ribbon on top.
It’s inevitable that Horns will be compared with Hill’s first novel, Heart-shaped Box. Whether one is better than the other is a matter of personal taste. The two novels are different enough, with Horns coming off as a little more fantastical and requiring a little more suspension of disbelief. Regardless, Horns is an enjoyable read that leaves you anxious for another book from Hill.