In the introduction to his second full-length novel, author Joe Hill indicates that writing it was a piece of cake even while acknowledging with a painful wink and nod that it was anything but. Indeed, there was quite a bit of space between his debut, HEART-SHAPED BOX, and this much-anticipated follow-up work. It’s not like Hill had been idle in the intervening time period. He had written a couple of short stories (including one with his father for a limited edition collection) and a comic book series. Brilliant in conception, flawed (but not fatally so) in execution, HORNS is a rollercoaster of a work full of thrills and chills, yet it leaves you just a tad disappointed when it lets you off, (somewhat) safe and (reasonably) intact at the end of the ride.
The novel is set in the small New Hampshire town of Gideon, where Ignatius William Perrish --- “Ig” to his friends --- wakes up one morning after a night of drinking and profane acts to discover that he has grown a pair of horns (as in the type of horns normally associated with Satan). He has some powers to go along with these horns, including the ability to draw the innermost secrets and feelings from anyone he touches. These folks are also compelled to tell him exactly what they are thinking.
As it becomes obvious fairly quickly, these are not wonderful powers to possess, particularly when Ig discovers the truth behind the murder of his girlfriend, Merrin. His friend Lee saved his life once upon a time, but may know much more about Merrin’s death than he’s letting on. Ig also has a brother named Terry, a musician made good who hosts a quirky late-night television show and has a passel of his own secrets. Even Merrin, who broke Ig’s heart just before she died, has a few dark and dangerous things she’s keeping close to her heart. So what happens when Ig finds out the truth? Oh, about what you would expect: he goes a little crazy. Except you might be a little wrong...about everything. And Ig could be the sanest one around.
HORNS goes astray slightly. Hill seems to have wanted to write a parable --- and he partially succeeds --- and a supernatural novel, which is where he paints himself into somewhat of a corner. He also waxes philosophical, dealing with issues of good and evil and who really is running things down here, but then appears to change his mind, as if he realized he didn’t have the running room to get to where he wanted to go. Throw in some political ax grinding, and it becomes a bit too much.
Still, however, I read this book like my house was on fire and I had to finish before the walls came down. I only stopped reading the last 80 pages long enough to scream (twice) and blink tears away (once, but don’t tell anyone). Will I chase folks down to ask/cajole/beg them to read HORNS? Yes. And here I come.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011