★★★★★ Horns by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) is a work of pure creative genius, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. Its high-concept ‘sympathy for the devil’ premise is totally fresh, intricate, and delightfully surprising, with the unexpected bonus that its climax shatters the King weak ending curse, with not a hint of deus ex machina anywhere to be seen.
From the moment 26-year old sex-murder-suspect / layabout slacker Ig Perrish wakes up with horns sprouting from his head, and enters the first of many startling, bizarre, and disturbing confrontations with the people he knows and loves, we know we’re in for a helluva ride.
Ig’s new-grown horns have fascinating powers, which he quickly learns to use, abuse, and control- in his presence people start blabbing their most innermost secrets; that they are racists, that they want to kill Ig, that they want to kill themselves or cheat on their wives or anything else that is really deep and dark and dire. Then once the secrets are out, they ask Ig’s permission to do whatever it is they most want to do. Sometimes he gives it.
The first quarter of the book is taken up with laying out this premise, unveiling the secrets, lies, and darkest desires of everyone around Ig one by one (girlfriend, priest, doctor, family), establishing broadly the bounds of his new infernal powers, and along the way revealing a dark humor in Hill‘s dry, laid back voice.
Hill uses a few of his father’s tricks during this early stage, to really set the hook of horror and reveal the depths to which his story will plumb. Within the first few chapters he has a character use the N-word, and another the F-word (not f%$k, but fa%$ot), which is always shocking to read, and something King the elder often does. As usual, it is highly effective, a slap in the face, even though Hill never uses either word again throughout the whole of the book. It sets a tone where really ugly things are real.
After all that cool unveiling came the only bit that turned me off- the flip to back-story at the one quarter mark. It is a very thorough flip, taking us back to Ig as a kid, and introducing all the key players who’ll shape the rest of the story, leading up to the sex-murder of Ig’s own girlfriend, a crime he was never formally charged with but that everybody believes he did.
It takes a LONG time to catch up to that point. There is a lot of backstory, and I was frustrated with how completely Hill flipped from the cool premise of the horns to a pretty standard bit of American suburbia. Certainly, he had hooked me enough with the premise, and I don’t know how else he could have got across all the info that was needed to make the rest of the novel work, but still it was vexing. I had just got used to Ig and his new skills, I wanted to know what happened next, then I had to go back and start caring about him ten years earlier, which was a real slog.
But whatever, I read on. The backstory provided needed depth, yadda yadda. What was really interesting though was when we flipped back to the present. From that point on, both the front and back-story interwove with an excellent, tense regularity. I was invested in both, and they both worked, so it is worth ploughing through the second quarter flashback, because everything that follows is gravy.
I cannot resist comparisons to Stephen King. In fact Horns reminded me quite a lot of Needful Things, a Stephen King story also about a devil, who also has special knowledge of people’s deepest desires, and is able to exploit that for his own ends. But the comparisons end there. Needful Things absolutely succumbed to the King curse, which is that three quarters of the novel are setup, perhaps fascinating but missing any real motive force by any of the ‘protagonists’, with only the last quarter involving their meager efforts to flip things around, and an unearned ending that feels kind of deus ex machina.
Don’t agree? King has done it in many of his biggest, most popular books. The Stand is a prime example- for the first three quarters it is an epic soap opera, with long character introductions, long minor quibbles between minor characters getting resolved, then the central question of plot only getting addressed at the very end. And what do they do? They march into Mordor, but they haven’t even got the ring of power. The ending relies on providence and the biggest deus ex machina ever, which in my view is just inexcusable.
Same for Under the Dome. It’s all long, long setup, and we’re expecting some big climactic battle between the good guy and the bad guy, but (spoiler alert!) it never comes. The good guy survives not because of any special skill, but just because of luck. The bad guy fails for the same reason- luck. It is inherently, deeply unsatisfying.
I mention these as a contrast, because Horns does not fall into these traps. After the hook is set, and the backstory covered, the whole second half of the book is a race towards conclusion, wholly driven by Ig’s desire to find the person who killed his girlfriend and make them pay. It is all motive force, with his efforts met by rebuttals, back and forth with the scale and stakes getting bigger and bigger at each step, until the final spectacular showdown, which was completely satisfying and wholly earned.
I’ve already bought Hill‘s first book, Heart Shaped Box, and will likely move on to the next right after it. Further, I can’t wait to see Daniel Radcliffe play Ig Perrish in the 2014 film adaptation of Horns. Just from this clip alone, watching that accent tumble out of Harry Potter’s mouth, I am intrigued.
A handy link if you want to buy it-
Horns: A Novel