It is hard to believe that Horns is only Joe Hill’s second novel. Hill seemed to burst onto the horror fiction scene from nowhere in the spring of 2007 with the publication of Heart-Shaped Box, a top-ten best seller in nearly every poll. In actuality Hill, in his mid-thirties, had been laboring at his craft for years, and his short work had been published, primarily in obscure literary magazines, for nearly a decade. Fifteen of these short stories, novelettes and novellas were collected and made available in 2005’s 20th-Century Ghosts, a 1700-copy limited edition by British small press PS Publishing. The book won the Bram Stoker and the British Fantasy awards for Best Collection, and “Voluntary Committal,” a story in that collection, copped the Best Novella Stoker. With the success of Heart-Shaped Box, Hill’s U.S. publisher released Ghosts late in 2007. The last two years have seen the publication of the Locke and Key graphic novel series; Gunpowder, a great science fiction novella from PS; and the audio novella, Throttle, written with his father, Stephen King. Now Hill makes a very personal journey into hell with Horns.
There is no better way to start talking about Horns than to quote the first page:
Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances. He was so ill—wet-eyed and weak—he didn’t think anything of it at first, was too hungover for thinking or worry.
But when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept. He lurched in surprise, and for the second time in twelve hours, he pissed on his feet.
At first he thinks he’s hallucinating, the results of his night of debauchery, but soon he learns that the horns are all too real. And not only do the horns make him look like a skinny second-class demon, they give Ig a couple of unwanted powers. When people see him, they pour out their most depraved hidden desires and asked his advice about following up on them. Worse, when he touches people, he learns all of their secrets, especially the sins that might damn their souls.
Most of the time, these are things he doesn’t want to hear and secrets he doesn’t want to know, but now he will be able to uncover the one mystery that has ruined his life: he can find out who raped and murdered the woman he loved.
Until a year ago Ig seemed to lead a charmed life. He came from a rich and respected family; he was smart and successful, headed for his dream job; and Merrin Williams, the only girl he had ever cared about, loved him. But on the night of their first argument, someone raped and killed Merrin, and Ig was the only suspect. He was never tried for the crime because the evidence that would have convicted or cleared him was destroyed in a fire. However, in his small hometown of Gideon, New Hampshire, everyone was convinced of his guilt.
While Ig in his devil persona is canvassing the town, Hill begins a series of flashbacks that starts in the church where Ig and Merrin first connect and leads up to the final revelation of how, why and by whom the crime was committed. The transitions between the present and the past are handled so deftly that they are almost seamless. Hill sprinkles a multitude of demonic references through the narrative: names, music, places, everyday items and more, and he uses horns in a variety of ways. I don’t want to mention any of them here and spoil the fun.
While the conclusion of the novel is a bit over the top, Hill somehow manages to make a protagonist with horns and supernatural powers seem not only acceptable, but normal. Horns is an addictive read. Plan on a couple of late nights glued to it and checking the mirror in the morning to make sure that nothing weird is sprouting from your noggin.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take Joe Hill another three years before we get to see his next full-length novel.
Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Look for one of these on the back cover of Horns. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.