Horns Review: Dancing with the Devil
After reading Joe Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box and his third novel NOS4R2 I found that I adored his writing style and twisted fantasy narratives. So I had to check out his second novel Horns.
Horns tell the non-linear story of Ignatius ‘Ig’ Perish who, while dealing with the tragic loss of his first love Merrin, wakes up with a hangover from hell and a fresh set of horns protruding from his head. This should be the strangest and most absurd thing Ig has ever dealt with, but from the opening scene Hill deals with this as if it is mundane and not to be worried about. People who notice the horns soon forget about them too, allowing Ig to do the same and focus more on the effect these new features have on those around him.
Ig’s new horns seem to have a power to make the people of his small town confess their secret desires while asking for Ig’s permission to indulge in these atrocious things. From a gluttonous girlfriend, to a lustful police officer and a deceitful nun, Ig flexes his influence on the people around him and finds he can convince them to act upon their innermost desires.
The downfall of his new found power is that people feel compelled to tell him the truth, a lot of which is unsettling and heart-breaking to hear from those closest to him. Ig was the primary suspect of his girlfriend Merrin’s tragic rape and murder the year before and, with the help of the horns, he comes to confirm that almost everyone believes he committed the horrendous crime.
This leads to the main plot of the novel, which takes a deep dive into Ig’s exploration of what happened to Merrin and how their romance came to be. The unrelentingly painful romance and loss in this novel are what keeps the characters pushing forward. It’s safe to say the most enjoyable elements may come from the spewing of secrets induced by Ig’s horns, but the underlying heart is his and Merrin’s relationship.
Unfortunately, the heart of the story does also lead to some meandering points. There’s a lot of flashback to moments of Ig and Merrin’s relationship blossoming, but it can drag slightly. There are some strange descriptions of females and time fracturing that pulled me out of the story slightly at points, causing me to fluctuate between loving and liking Horns. But Hill manages to seed so much about our characters through these memories that it isn’t completely unwarranted and allows us to delve into the complex relationships and friendships between these outcasts.
Horns plays with morality and what it means to be good, bad or indifferent. When all is lost is there any point in fighting the inner demons anymore? This is Ig’s moral dilemma throughout his metamorphosis and journey to find the truth about Merrin, but also the moral dilemma of many of the characters. The perception switch between Ig and Lee gives a greater understanding of the characters within this world, there’s a way of looking at Merrin and Terry through two peoples eyes and seeing them in a different lens that allows them to feel rounded, flawed and real.
“If you want pitchforks, snakes and some great references to a blue dress then this is the book for you.”
The sociopathic and repulsive character of Lee allows a protagonist with horns who may literally be turning into the devil to still feel like a good guy. Not all friendships should last, especially one-sided hero worship friendships based on feeling a mixture of guilt and owing the person your life. Hill makes choices in the way Ig and Lee are presented throughout the book that provides us with two different views of these characters. Of course nobody wants to be the villain of their own story, so depending on the perspective we get two very different views on these characters. Lee should be the pinnacle of moral good, yet everything from his perspective has a slimy and darkly clouded feel to it compared to the hero worship he receives from Ig.
Laced with pop culture references and dark humour Horns manages to be visceral, haunting and entertaining throughout. There are some nice little references to The Exorcist with the use of the names Merrin and Regan and plenty of jokes about the Devil himself. If you want pitchforks, snakes and some great references to a blue dress then this is the book for you. Hill understands that this concept could easily slip onto the wrong side of the cheese line and manages to balance this well through its self-referential humour and complete awareness.
Horns is a fantastical story of the human condition that combines the worst moments of life with the most bizarre. It’s one hell of a good time with some deep, hard hitting elements and some outlandish and hilarious ones, all combined to create a devilishly fun read.