by Joe Hill
Reviewed by Katherine Dunn
As many of his readers already know, Joe Hill is the pen name of Joseph Hillstrom King, the oldest son of Stephen King. Hill toiled for years to succeed as a writer without trading on his father's name. His first collection of short fiction, 20th Century Ghosts, won the prestigious Bram Stoker Award. When his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, hit the best-seller lists in 2007, the news media got hold of his bloodline and splashed it. Now, with Horns, Hill proves again that he is running on his own steam.
This second novel opens as 26-year-old Ignatius W. Perrish, "Ig" to his friends, wakes up with a homicidal hangover, dim notions of what he did the night before and a pair of demonic horns sprouting from his receding hairline. None of this strikes Ig as entirely inappropriate because it is the first anniversary of the brutal rape and murder of his sweetheart, Merrin Williams.
As the second son of a wealthy family in a small New England town, Ig has always been a decent, churchgoing fellow. Devilry doesn't come easy for him, but it's been a tough year, and he's a fast learner.
The murder was never solved, and the innocent Ig is still the prime suspect. The townsfolk shun him, his friends cut him and even his parents believe he killed the girl he had adored since they were both in their early teens.
Still, Ig fears the horns are a symptom of something fatal so he sets out looking for help for his sudden malady. But the horns have a strange effect on everyone he talks to. Though they are blatantly visible, people forget the horns exist as soon as they look away. More significantly, the horns impel anyone who falls under their sway to blurt out their nastiest notions. The mildest encouragement from Ig himself spurs them to act upon them.
Sick and self-pitying, the horned Ig leaves a stream of mayhem in his wake. A screeching brawl breaks out in the doctor's waiting room, a nun abandons the church and various people tell Ig exactly what they think of him. None of it is flattering.
The devil as depicted in Ig is not so much the perpetrator of evil as its revealer. He is a magnet for human ugliness, and occasionally he retaliates.
This dark comic sequence riffs on the frailty of the social veneer and salutes the functional value of hypocrisy. But it teaches Ig a lot about how to use his horns and the peculiar powers that come with them. It also allows his older brother, Terry, to explain how he knows that Ig did not commit the murder.
Terry's admission triggers everything that follows. It is new evidence that shifts the book dramatically into the form of a nicely crafted psychological crime novel. In long, meandering flashbacks, Ig recalls his earliest times with the beloved Merrin and with his friend Lee Tourneau. These segments are lush and evocative, wistfully nostalgic and engineered for the precise timing of each revelation.
Once the connections are clear, Horns switches back to the supernatural present and becomes a furious thriller with a novice satanic superhero hellbent on revenge.
This serpentine structure can be fuddling, but Hill romps with the details. The title, for instance, plays on multiple levels. Ig sprouts demon horns, but he also wears the metaphorical horns of the cuckold. His father and older brother are famous trumpet players, an instrument denied to Ig because of his asthma. An angelic trumpet blast plays a crucial role in a climactic battle scene.
Some of the character names are potent signifiers. Brother Terry's name, for example, is short for Terence, an early Christian saint who was martyred by being flung into a pit of venomous snakes. That history plays a role in the story. And the diminutive, Ig, is a prefix meaning Not. But Ignatius means fiery -- a trait that becomes increasingly apparent as the tale winds around.
The wise guys point out that the literature of horror fantasy tends to be both romantic and conservative. Normalcy is idealized and so precious that its violation is the essence of horror. Joe Hill's sweet, fanged demonology takes us there.