It is rare that a writer emerges on the scene in any genre with a book that will have people talking for years to come. When Joe Hill released his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, this is precisely what happened. This new writer came out with a book that took not only the horror genre, but the literary community as a whole, by storm, and demonstrated a most rare skill for blending the subtle and the horrific into a worthy mixture.
His first novel, Heart Shaped Box, was another very good book sure to please any reader, but lacked the same punch delivered by his short work (I’m referring to the collection as a whole, but also specifically to one story entitled “Pop Art”). When Horns was released, I wondered for a while what to expect. Clearly, he had a strong talent, but would it be best enjoyed in short form, or would his second novel stand even stronger than the first?
I was most pleased to discover that, indeed, it does stand stronger than the first. It provides precious few truly scary moments, but instead brings to the table strong characterization and an artful subtlety at combining the real with the surreal; the quiet and philosophical with the brutal and disturbing.
The story follows Ig Perrish, son of a rich and famous father, with a brother following in the family business. Ig, however, is not joining the family business. In fact, he doesn’t have much of a life for himself at all. A year prior to the novel’s opening, his girlfriend, Merrin, was brutally raped and murdered. Ig was never convicted, but has always been the only suspect in the crime. He wakes up one morning, after a night of drinking and “doing terrible things,” to discover that he’s grown horns on his head. With said horns, he has acquired devilish powers, and sets out to use these powers to discover Merrin’s killer.
Horns is a “deal with the devil” story with a unique perspective. What if the devil isn’t the bad guy, after all? It’s certainly not a new idea in literature, but Hill crafts his tale with an expert hand, dragging the reader along from emotion to emotion as we learn more and more details about the characters’ lives and situations.
Throughout the book, the observant reader will find repeated use of traditional symbolism, some obvious, some more subtle. We see snakes, horns, and pitchforks regularly. When Ig, playing the devil, encounters these objects, their meaning is perfectly clear. However, Hill also uses his allegory more subtly than that, as in one instance later in the book in which another character has a run-in with a pitchfork. The reader is left to wonder what, if anything, this particular bit of symbolism is meant to represent, and the reader’s perspective is sure to be colored by his own theological preferences.
Hill takes a big risk in the way he presents this book, laced with flashbacks ranging from the characters’ childhood to the more recent past. In the hands of a lesser author, such a technique would come across simply as a bold information dump, and a distraction from the overarching story. In Hill’s case, however, the ploy pays off. The reader is not bored by the back story--indeed, it is as fascinating and integral to the novel as the presence of the horns on Ig’s head--and yet, rather than being distracted by the alternate narratives, we see a larger picture taking shape: a portrait of how and why the characters’ lives are interconnected, and the formative events (seemingly inconsequential at the time) that led to their present situation.
Only once, very briefly, did this back-story become tiresome, at a point where it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to the business at hand. However, by the end of the flashback, we’ve discovered new aspects of a key character, and a deeper understanding of how these events came to be.
Another risk that paid off quite brilliantly was Hill’s decision to leave Ig’s “moment of truth,” at which point he apparently made a deal with the devil and earned his horns, shrouded in secrecy throughout the text. Very quickly, Ig, along with the reader, stops even caring why this unexpected turn of events has come to pass, and simply accepts that this is the way things are. It’s risky because it could easily come across as a “cheat,” to give a character these new powers with no understanding of the cost he had to pay to get them. However, in this situation, the cost is known: the weight of sorrow over Merrin’s death almost seems like a tangible thing throughout the text of this book, and is implicitly understood as the cost Ig paid for his powers. All that remains unanswered is the precise mechanism by which the powers were acquired, and the book is stronger for it.
When the news broke that Joe Hill is actually a pseudonym for Joe Hillstrom King, son of the famed author Stephen King, speculation ran wild that he was simply exploiting his father’s unique status to sell his books. Of course, an attempt to avoid this speculation is what prompted him to write under an assumed name to begin with. Every thing he’s written so far--his short story collection and his two novels--demonstrates conclusively that he is a brilliant author in his own right. Surely his father’s career had an influence in his formation as a writer, and one would be foolish not to take an opportunity to learn from one of the undisputed masters of the genre. However, it is obvious that he’s paid his dues, and has proven himself as one of the new masters of the genre, boasting an impressive ability to create sincere and believable characters about whom the reader feels genuine concern.