Sunday, April 4, 2010

on the horns of a dilemma; the great bits, and a few patchy bits, in joe hill's horns

Ah... the indomitable Joe Hill returns. There is a lyrical quality to Hill's version of horror, a touch of poetry in not only his prose but also his plots and twists. With Horns, Hill brings us Iggy – a young man, like many other young men in the world. Iggy is in a rut, he's given up on the promise of his youth, he's eking out what life he has left with an accidental girlfriend, a distant family and a heavily embedded pain in his heart where his "one true love" used to be.
Then he wakes up with horns on his head after a night he doesn't remember.
“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 over 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.”
The biblical and historical references to the devil are obvious but incongruous as Iggy drives around his small-town America home in his small-town America 1972 AMC Gremlin trying to come to terms with his new look.
It is this juxtaposition of real and fantasy that makes Hill's books such good reads. The New York Times best-selling author of Heart-Shaped Box should be able to write a good read; he's Stephen King's son after all.
While the horror connection is there to King's work, Hill writes with a taught delicacy that reminds the reader of grunge era youths, all skinny, hyped-up strength and dopey, gloomy thoughts.
Prior to getting the horns, Iggy had tumbled from upper-class smugness to white trash depression after the death of his beloved, Merrin Williams. Merrin was his golden girl, the girl he'd loved forever, the one he was going to marry. She was found raped, murdered, dumped in the woods and Iggy was blamed for it.
Wallowing in both his own self-pity and his town's ostracisation, Iggy ends up with a hole in his memory and horns on his head – horns that somehow enable him to know people's deepest, darkest secrets.
The local doctor is a drug addict, the local priest is having an affair, his family hates him … and maybe, just maybe, his brother knows something about Merrin's death.
While I loved the premise of Hill's book, and positively relished his passages involving Iggy and his new-found powers, there are passages in Horns that almost put me to sleep. I have to admit that I gave up about half-way through, read a few other books and skipped to the end, before returning to finish the novel.
Why? The passages that move back in time to Iggy's childhood, his meeting with Merrin and his best friend Lee, are boring. I really didn't care about how the pair came to meet, nor did the detailed background to Lee and Iggy's friendship keep me interested. Hill writes horror and fantasy so much better than he does ordinariness. Still, that could just be my personal preferences talking.
Returning to Iggy's present and the revelations of all and sundry get the book moving along again. Iggy realises that he can influence people with the horns, he can get them to act on their deepest, darkest desires. He also discovers that friendship may not be all it's cracked up to be.
Throughout the book Hill places vignettes of delight; the mysterious tree-house that Iggy and Merrin discover, the horrible death of Lee's mother and the deliciously icky nature of people's revelations are great parts of Horns.
The age old play of good versus evil, the devil versus god also gets a bit of shake up, is Iggy a devil because of his horns? Or are all people devils inside?
I'll admit that I found Horns patchy in some instances, but overall, it is a fantastic read – Hill has produced another great piece of horror fiction, well-worth getting your hands on.

Horns by Joe Hill is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.


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