If anyone claims that Horns by Joe Hill is an easy read, or a light-hearted, fun novel, you may want to check their head for a pair of horns of their own, because they are most certainly lying.
Other than the comic book Locke & Key, this is the first of Hill’s work that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Like Locke & Key, the story is dark, brooding and troubling. If I had to determine a genre, I would say that it straddles the line between low fantasy and horror, with a splash of mystery and some definite Christian overtones. Our protagonist, Ig, awakens one morning to discover that a pair of horns has sprouted from his forehead. These horns have the power to make people confess their darkest desires to Ig, who is still grieving over the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin, a year ago. As his strange powers continue to manifest and the horns grow, Ig makes some disturbing discoveries and learns a great deal about friendship, love and betrayal – and finds out just how far he is willing to descend into sin and darkness in order to avenge his best friend and childhood lover.
The beginning of the novel was admittedly a little slow. I had trouble sympathizing with Ig at first, as he has sunk so deeply into despair and self-loathing that he comes across as rather flat. This problem gradually disappeared as the flashback sequences began, however. In these, Hill reminded me very vividly of his father (Stephen King). The themes of childhood and young love were reminiscent of It.
This book, like It, disturbed me on several layers. Ig’s interactions with his family members and friends are haunting, to say the least. Everyone in the town believes that he killed Merrin, and most of them wouldn’t be sorry to see him dead. Scifi and fantasy often play with the concept of telepathy, and the theme of “you’d be happier not knowing” is a common one, but rarely have I seen it executed so well.
The swift unraveling of Ig and Merrin’s apparently flawless relationship before her death is shown through a series of flashbacks, some through another character’s point of view. Here, Hill displays his mastery of differing viewpoints. An innocent movement seen through one character’s eyes is a blatant sexual invitation through another’s, and I found myself able to relate to and understand both viewpoints.
Hill’s style is sparse, but the prose flows beautifully. He describes just enough to allow the reader to form their own internal images, and his dialogue is smooth and natural. He explores themes as beautiful as first love and as dark as murder in the same breath, and does so with the simultaneous simplicity and complexity which the subjects deserve.
At its center, Horns explores a question which almost everyone asks themselves at one point or another – if the one person we love most were violently taken from us, how would we react? Would we seek vengeance? Would we sink into despair? Would we take our own lives? But the question Joe Hill is asking is considerably deeper and more thought-provoking. Would you be willing to sacrifice all the goodness within you in order to destroy an even greater evil?
Perhaps the vague sense of unease I’ve had since I finished the book is because, having asked myself this question, I find myself at a loss for an answer.
I would recommend this book to fans of Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allen Poe, as well as horror & dark fantasy aficionados.
7 / 10 stars
Publisher: William Morrow