Devil in a Blue Dress: Horns by Joe Hill

I have Amanda Palmer to thank for my discovery of Joe Hill. About five years ago, she blogged about a “kind gentleman” and a friend of Neil Gaiman who brought her beer in the janitor’s closet at a concert venue she was playing at in Portland, Maine. As an ardent AFP+NFG acolyte,  that same afternoon I checked out every Joe Hill work from my local library, which, at the time was 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box.

I fell madly in love almost immediately, and by the time Horns came out the following spring, neither Hell nor high water could keep me from seeing him read on his book tour. I even still have the light-up horns he passed out as party favors. So when I was asked if I wanted to review Horns the book and Horns the movie, I jumped at the chance so fast I practically lit my email on fire.

Joe Hill is a master at telling a story that feels both mundane and magical, where the supernatural is real and reality is fantastical. When Ig Perrish wakes up the morning after the anniversary of his girlfriend’s rape and murder, he has the world’s worst hangover and a frightening pair of horns growing out of his head. The horns should cause an existential crisis wherein Ig’s entire worldview collapses around him and the reader, but it’s tempered by the sheer indifference everyone has about them. It’s not that they don’t notice or care, but what the horns do to them overwhelms any concern they might feel.

Ig and his horns inspire people to reveal their worst thoughts, and they seek his blessing to do atrocious things. He’s equal parts devastated, enraged, and relieved to learn what everyone really feels about him, and engages in acts of revenge, mercy, or forgiveness as he sees fit. It’s as cathartic for him as it is for his “victims.” Ig quickly learns he can inspire and goad, but not force, and then discovers the line between cajoling and compulsion is a fine one. As Iggy tries to figure out the extent of the horns’ power and what to do about them, he visits his replacement girlfriend, Glenna, a doctor, a house of God, his family, and his ex-BFF, Lee Tourneau. Each visit gets increasingly diabolical as Ig begins to give in to the horns…or perhaps the horns are merely a manifestation of his inherent nature.

The citizens of Ig’s hometown, a small, Protestant city in rural New Hampshire, believe he killed his girlfriend, Merrin, in a fit of rage after a bad breakup, and that his wealthy and famous musician father had the forensics lab burned down to clear his youngest son’s name. Iggy didn’t kill Merrin, but the absence of exonerating evidence or another suspicious party leaves him guilty enough for the public to hate. He and Merrin met as teenagers, and were more or less inseparable from then on. They were Adam and Eve, two people meant for each other, their love forged in the eyes of God, consecrated in a spiritual treehouse, and corrupted by the temptation of experience and knowledge, and crushed at the foot of a diseased cherry tree near an abandoned forge in the woods.

Horns pits God and Satan against each other through their earthly pawns, though it isn’t quite as direct as that. Neither deity make a literal appearance, but their influence stains Ig’s world like blood or bleach. It’s telling that the devil of the piece only inflicts cruelties on those who genuinely deserve them and steers others toward lesser evils while the angel “fixes” things by destroying everything and salting the earth behind him. Horns isn’t about good and evil as clear-cut, opposing forces, but the wickedness of sanctimony and the righteousness of sin. The Devil grants freedom and encourages giving into your desires, but never promises such indulgences are consequence-free. If you’re willing to sin, you must also be willing to accept what may come from it. At its most basic level, what the Devil offers is free will, while God accepts only strict obedience in exchange for a blessed reward. But which path is right and which is wrong? Are they both valid? Or are they both false? Does it matter? Should it? Why?

Sorry, got a bit distracted there for a minute. Horns will do that to you if you’re not careful. I saw an awful lot of my church-influenced childhood reflected in Ig, Merrin, and Lee, and I keep getting pulled into internal debates about theological philosophies. Any author that leaves you a tangle of thoughts and conflicts gets high marks in my book. It doesn’t hurt that Hill is also a talented writer, craft-wise. The book, like his others, is broken up into several titled volumes, most of which are from Ig’s past and present perspective, but we also get to hear from Merrin, Lee, and Ig’s older brother Terry. Each bring a new translation to the story, each coloring it with their own biased viewpoints, opinions, and ideologies, and each carrying Ig closer to the cold, hard truth about what really happened to Merrin the night she was killed.

Let’s take a sidebar to talk about names. Joe Hill is very good at coming up with great names. The name Merrin and her dead sister Regan came from The Exorcist. Her last name, Williams, might also, but the singular form also means “protector.” Terrance means “tender,” and he certainly has a tender heart buried under all that guilt and shame. Glenna means “glen,” and the wooded New Hampshire valleys are where her story as connected to Ig begin and end. And security guard Hannity is, well, Hannity. Ignatius comes from the Etruscan name Egnatius, meaning unknown, but was modified to look similar to the Latin word ignis, or “fire.” Perrish could refer to “parish,” as in the local district of a church, or “perish,” as in to die violently and to die a spiritual death. Lee Tourneau might be in reference to LeTourneau University, a Christian school in Texas founded by devout Christian and philanthropist R.G. LeTourneau, the “Dean of Earthmoving.” Lee is also a Celtic name meaning “healer,” and if that’s not ironic I don’t know what is.

Like all of Hill’s other works, Horns is about a lot of things. There are layers secreted behind layers buried beneath layers entombed within layers. It’s a painful and deeply sad book about lost lovers and broken hearts, or a darkly tragicomic tale about a the pleasures and vices of sin and virtue, or a moral about seething sibling rivalries and friendly competition gone sour, or a horrific fable about meddling deities who delight in tormenting their worshippers, or an editorial diatribe railing against heartless conservatism and religious indoctrination, or whatever else you happen to feel at any given moment. I’ve read it a few times over the years and each time I come out of the experience having a completely new interpretation. Out of everything he’s written, from his numerous short stories to his novels to his comics, it’s Horns I always circle back to.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.


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