Horns by Joe Hill

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“He wore a red suit of flame, became a living torch. He screamed but couldn’t hear his own voice, because that was when the interior of the car ignited, with a low, deep whump that seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the air.”

Horns is a dark, twisted, and demented tale. Taking no prisoners, the book details one man’s supernatural plan for revenge, and the horrifying circumstances leading up to it. It is gruesome, it is disturbing, and it is occasionally painful to read. But for all that, it is also sublime.

The story of Horns is that of Ignatius Perrish, second son of a reasonably wealthy family, whose beloved, Merrin Williams, was raped and murdered approximately one year before the start of the book. As the only real suspect in the crime, Iggy was spared persecution only because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to kill the investigation. When he wakes up one morning with horns growing out of his head and no memory of the night before, he knows something big is up. When people suddenly start spouting their deepest sins and innermost thoughts to him, he sets out on a quest to find the person who ruined his life by ending Merrin’s. In addition to this story, we also, through a series of long flashbacks, learn about the love between Merrin and Iggy, and the circumstances surrounding Merrin’s death, as well as her death itself.

The line between too dark and too light is a fine one for a story like this, and Hill treads it beautifully, with all the confidence of a ten-book veteran of the genre. Though grim, the book is often surprisingly humorous, or lightened by touching moments, which serve to briefly alleviate the grittiness of the book. Hill’s prose is quietly beautiful; without stealing the show, it quietly sweeps you along, fully engrossing you in the plot and investing you in the characters. It is noteworthy more for its storytelling than its beauty.

The characters are beautifully crafted, each magical in their own way. Iggy is a fantastic protagonist, and feels real and fleshed out from page one. Watching his character grow (backwards, as most of it is told through flashbacks) from naïve child to jaded cynic is fascinating, and though difficult to pull off, Hill does it with aplomb. Though Iggy does some terrible things, we still found ourselves drawn to him in what I have termed “The Jorg Effect” (After the character Jorg in Mark Lawrence’s phenomenal The Broken Empire Trilogy).

The supporting cast of characters is also brilliant. Merrin Williams is far from the ditzy, giggly love interest one would expect from a horror novel, quite the opposite. She is independent, strong, and smart. Hill makes it clear that she is beautiful, gorgeous, but again she is not beautiful in the clichéd way. As in many other things, she has her beauty her own way. Lee Tourneau is one of the best villains I have ever read. Sympathetic and realistic, it is conceivable that one could even root for him for large swathes of the book. He is not evil for the sake of being evil, he is not even evil. He is just Lee Tourneau, and as a result, does some pretty terrible things that he does not understand, simply because of who he is. Iggy’s brother Terry is the least fleshed-out of all the major characters, but as he is far less important to the plot than the other three, it really doesn’t matter.

But the place where the book truly shines is in the interaction between the characters. The dialogue is possibly the best I have ever read, smooth and utterly flawless; it makes the characters leap out of the page in a way so rarely found. It feels completely like a real life conversation, an art that so few authors have mastered, let alone a relative newbie writing his only his second full-length novel.

The book does have a few flaws. Hill makes his views on humanity very clear in this book, and they do not exactly line up with my own. Everyone Ig talks to with the horns has some awful, terrible secret to share with him, and while this is initially shocking but interesting (the exchange with Sturtz and Posada was also quite entertaining), it eventually grows tiresome. I would think that someone Ig talked to would have no such secrets or desires to confess, or at least some of a magnitude less than wanting to push their sick, elderly wife down a flight of stairs.

The ending also leaves something to be desired. Though I expected that the ending would be less than satisfactory before I reached the final third of the book – I just didn’t see any way for Hill to wrap things up well – it actually exceeded my admittedly limited expectations. Despite my pleasant surprise at this, I still feel like a number of questions went unanswered about Iggy’s “condition”, likewise the events directly after the climax. Still, all in all, it could have been a lot worse.

Overall, this book was excellent. I will eagerly await any of Joe Hill’s future novels, and certainly look into getting his two already published books. He has impressed me with his excellent grasp of character growth and development, and uniquely creative plots. A word of warning, though: This book is not for the faint of heart. It is messed up and perverted, dark and twisted. If you are easily offended, or do not take kindly to horrors, do not read this book. No matter how well prepared you are, it will shock you. But it is still brilliant, and if you like that sort of thing, there are few books out there better.

Final Rating: 8.5/10