Review: Horns by Joe Hill

Horns is the debut novel of Joe Hill (which is possibly the worst pen name ever since its fairly common knowledge he’s Stephen King’s boy.)  Basically, Horns is about this dude named Ig who wakes one morning after a heavy night of drinking with a pair of horns growing out of his forehead.  To make matters worse, the horns apparently have the ability to coerce people to confess their sins to Ig when he talks to them face to face.  Ig spends t he early part of the novel attempting to get the issue resolved through science and theology.  Both are futile.  The only thing that Ig remembers from the night before is pissing on the memorial to his dead girlfriend, and descrating a statue of Mary and the Cross.  You see, Ig’s girfriend Merrin was brutally murdered and raped a year prior and Ig was the only person of interest in the crime.  Even though he was never offically charge for it due to a lack of evidence the majority of the small town of Gideon believe he’s guilty.  After learning some hidden information about Merrin’s murder via a conversation with his older brother, Ig sets forth to seek justice for the murder while his powers as a ‘devil’ evolve and he deals with the consequences of them.

Overall, I liked this novel a lot.  What makes it work for me is that Hill manages to keep the plot moving at a steady pace while at the same time developing his characters and backstory.  At least in the first couple hundred pages of the book.  I think this approach is great because it gives you learn about Ig through his interactions with others and himself while the story progresses rather then stopping the plot in order to give me an info dump of backstory while bringing the story to a screeching halt.  I hate that.  I felt that all the characters, major and minor were well developed.  Although it was completely obvious who the killer would be in the end, it was still an enjoyable plot.  I don’t think that Hill was trying to trick anyone with the killer’s identity, given some of the foreshadowing earlier in the book. 

Hill manages to put an interesting spin on the whole Christian theology aspect.  Ig takes on the appearance and abilities of a demon or ‘devil’ but over the course of the story he’s actually the ”hero”. In fact even before his transformation Ig is perceived as a pervert/psycho and becoming an actual demon is just a manifestation of that perception.

At the same time the killer has created the facade of being an ultra conservative/Christian lily white goodie-two shoes type.  I say facade because the killer is bat shit crazy, and has a twisted idea of God and God’s plan.  But since he’s a public relations rep for a Congressman, he can put up the facade of being a conservative Christian who’s never gotten his hands dirty but in reality is a filthy beast.

In the end there’s a rational reason for why Ig became a ‘devil’ and it ties in rather nicely with a bit of the back story about this mystical tree house Ig and Merrin found while they were teenagers. 

Another thing that I liked about Horns was that Hill manages to use the setting, a wooded area with the ruins of an old foundry, as more of a character rather then a prop.  The area plays a central part in the novel, and the majority of the big scenes take place there.  It is like an anchor for all the plot threads and characters.  The manner in which Hill writes it, thte foundry doesn’t come across as contrived or forced.  It seems perfectly natural for events to unfold there.

I felt that the plot moved at a good pace and the tension/suspense built up very well leading to the final confrontation between Ig and the killer.  Hill is adept at creating tension and suspense exactly when you need it.  He has the ability to keep me glued to the page, and doesn’t distract me with unnecessary exposition during a suspenseful scene.

There were a few things that bugged me about Hill’s style.  One of the biggest was about half way through the book, Hill takes a detour from the main plot and goes back to when the main characters were teens.  He explains how they all met and etc.  A lot of the information I could do without, although some comes into play later on in the book. I think Hill could’ve expedidted certain amounts of the information through dialogue during the course of the main plot or simple flash backs. Diverting from the main plot of the novel, is like slamming on the brakes while doing 75 on the highway just to roll down your window and take a snapshot of a field of wildflowers.  It may be pretty and mildly interesting but is it really worth it?

Another thing Hill does is shows me the events of the murder from two characters points of views.  They both happen to be in the same car together during them.  In two seperate chapters Hill shows a perspective from each character.  I found it redundant to basically reread two similar chapters with only a few minor changes.  Again, Hill could’ve written this simpler and better.  It comes across as clunky and more like filler, it should’ve been cut from earlier drafts.

Also, Hill at times can get a little caught up in the devil cliches.  Such as Ig’s girlfriend having devil panties on the floor which Ig trips over during a fight with one of the killer’s goons.  Matchbooks that have the devil on them.  A note in the tree house with the name L. Morningstar (a reference to Lucifer,).  It’s all rather cringe worthy but luckily Hill lays off the puns long enough to return to the plot.  I think someone should tell him that he’s not as clever as he thinks he is when it comes to the puns and cliches.

I also felt that the conclusion to Ig’s story was handled very well, sad and beautiful at the same time.  It could even be iconic.  I think that Hill’s talent really shines through with the way he ends things with Ig.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t know enough to simply end on a high note.  He insists on giving a summary of what occurs with a few minor characters that frankly I don’t care about.  I think its Hills attempt to wrap up lose ends that are better left frayed. 

In the end I liked Horns a lot.  Its a great idea behind it matched with well written characters and a good amount of suspense/action.  Hill knows when to throw in the supernatural and when to back off.  Despite the literary hiccups I already mentioned above, Horns is a good addition to the horror/fantastical genre of literature.  I would definitely follow him and see where he goes as he progresses as a novelist.  If you enjoy smartly written fantastical/supernatural novels, I would recommend it whole heatedly.

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