I think it was Plato who said that men and women started out as one being but then Zeus got jealous and split them apart so that they will spend the rest of their lives looking for their other half. At the heart of Joe Hill’s new book, Horns, is a story about a man who discovers that without his one true love, he is lost. He could devolve into the darkest part of himself and become a real demon. It’s only April so it might be a little premature to say this, but I’m gonna go ahead and say that HORNS is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year. I was riveted by it. I was in turns fascinated, horrified, repulsed, awed, and at a couple of points throughout the book, I had to look away from the pages because I was choked up and furiously blinking back tears. For a story about a guy sporting actual horns from his temple, it’s dark, funny, romantic, scary, and best all, real. I am totally in love with Joe Hill’s work. I’ve read everything he’s ever written, even the short stories and the comics. When I see an anthology featuring Joe Hill, I snatch it up (in the zombie antho The New Dead, there’s one that features an old-timey circus, Twitter, and of course, zombies). As much as I loved Heart-Shaped Box, I gotta say that HORNS is better.
Our hero Ig Perrish, the son of a Leonard Cohen-type legend and a showgirl, is an all-around good guy. He’s not as handsome or as talented as his older brother Terry, the host of a late-night show and a musician, but he is happy with his lot in life. His girlfriend, Merrin, is beautiful, kind, and going to school to become a doctor and they have been in love with each other since they were fifteen years old. For as long as Ig could remember, his heart has always belonged to Merrin and he has never wanted anyone else. The two of them meet at church when Ig notices a pretty redhead playing with her cross necklace so that it catches light and flashing it at Ig in what appears to be Morse code. Ig is convinced that he and Merrin are going to get married, have children, live happily ever after, and die in each other’s arms in their sleep. And then one day, Merrin, universally loved by man and critters, is brutally raped, murdered, and everyone in town believes that Ig did it, even his own friends and parents. All of a sudden, everything in Ig’s life starts to go wrong. He drops out of college, starts drinking heavily, shacks up with his high school’s skank, refuses to get a job, and spends every waking moment obsessing about his dead girlfriend. It gets even worse when he wakes up with a bitching headache, puts his hand up to his temples, and finds protrusions from his skull. He looks in the mirror and yep, horns.
But the horns are only the beginning. Ig is horrified to learn that the horns have an unexpected effect on anyone who sees them. Instead of freaking out, they only marvel at the horns for a moment, then blurt out to Ig the vilest, nastiest stuff brewing deep inside of them. They are not just surface confessions, but secrets that people don’t even allow themselves to think about. These are things that most people would deny in their deathbeds, would not even think of telling the people closest to them, and yet the sight of Ig’s horns alone compels them to babble like Tila Tequila on a case of Red Bull and a week of sleep deprivation. What’s more is that they all seem to be asking for Ig’s permission to sin, if Ig thinks it would be okay if they ate an entire box of stale grocery store donuts or backhand their wives for having a smart mouth. Another one of Ig’s powers is the psychic touch. When he puts his hand on a person, all of their past sins and transgressions are revealed to him, and it happens enough times that Ig is almost afraid to touch family members in fear of finding out the dirty, nasty, evil things they’ve done. Now don’t think that Ig turns into a superhero or anything because dude still gets his ass kicked in this book. A LOT. It’s a good thing he heals quickly or he would be dead.
This story unfolds in parts. First we meet Ig and learn that his beloved girlfriend has been dead for a year and he hasn’t been doing a lot of good living ever since. We are also introduced to his horns and new powers. The second part is a Stand By Me kind of thing (SBM is based on a short story called The Body written by Stephen King, Joe Hill’s father): Ig’s brother Terry and his friend Eric enjoy blowing things up with a cherry bomb and Ig tags along with them. They meet up with some kids from the wrong side of the tracks at an abandoned foundry and hang out with them, though the kids are leery of the Perrish brothers because they are rich and their father is famous. Ig, who is asthmatic and not very athletic, decides he’s going to show off in front of their new friends, and rides a shopping cart down a very dangerous hill NAKED. The shopping cart hits a bump, tips over, and Ig goes flying, cannonballing into a river where he almost drowns because he can’t swim. Luckily he is saved by a dude named Lee Tourneau who blows Ig away with his sheer unflappability and all around coolness. These little vignettes of Ig developing friendships and romantic entanglements are interspersed with Ig making a decision to find Merrin’s real killer by using his new powers and punishing the culprit like Liam Neeson and Frank Castle had an ugly baby born with the crazy compulsion to put the hurt on some motherfuckers. There are some disturbing scenes with Ig finding out what his parents and grandmother really think of him as well as a whole section told from the point of view of Merrin’s killer. We get to peek into his devious mind and find out what the hell is wrong with him. It’s really the creepiest part of the book because dude is MESSED UP. It was also interesting to see the story from the killer’s perspective versus how it REALLY happened.
HORNS is the ultimate plea for Sympathy for the Devil. Though Ig is supposed to be a demonic entity, he is not evil. He is truly a good person saddled with the Devil’s powers. My favorite part of the book is Ig standing in front of his reptilian flock (he becomes a pied piper for snakes) like a deranged naked preacher and waxes poetic about the Problem with God. As he tells his ex-girlfriend later on in the book, Lucifer is the first superhero, a powerful being who turns himself into a serpent so he can help Adam and Eve escape from a “megalomaniacal despot.” How can the devil be bad, Ig asks, if he is on the same side as God? God hates sinners and the devil is in charge of punishing them. Even the cute little cameo of Lucifer that pops up in an integral part of the book is portrayed from a romantic angle.
Oh my word: HORNS is a lot of fun to read, yet there are few thought-provoking moments as well. While reading it, I actually found myself contemplating (damn) what I would do if I woke up one morning with horns and Ig’s powers. (I would seek Jennifer Aniston with a tape recorder in hand, get her talking, and sell that shit to TMZ, just to finally to settle that whole “Jennifer Aniston is the sweet, nice girl-next-door everyone wants to be friends with” and “Angelina Jolie is the evil, man-stealing whooooore who took away Jennifer’s one true love” bullshit that I keep seeing on the covers of rags while waiting in line at the grocery store even though that shit happened a decade ago and for that matter, WHO THE HELL ARE THESE KARDASHIANS EVERYONE KEEPS TALKING ABOUT AND WHY SHOULD I CARE HOW KHLOE LOST HER BABY WEIGHT?!?!) Yes, he does some fucked-up stuff (spoiler: he shoves his infirm, wheelchaired grandmother down the hill when he finds out that she believes 1. Ig’s mother [her own daughter] is no better than a hooker, 2. Ig’s brother is a no-talent junkie loser, 3. Ig killed and brutalized Merrin because he’s always been “different” and she always “knew” there was something “off” about him and that he deserves to rot in jail for what he did), but one could rationalize that he was just lashing out because he’s in deep pain and honestly, he only really attacks douchebags. Observe: in the absence of the love of his life, a young man turns into a demon. For Ig, Merrin is the only source of light. It is a metaphor for the different ways people deal with grief; in a moment of extreme vulnerability, we are open to the darkest part of ourselves. And that’s really the most fascinating aspect of this book: the dirty, nasty, depraved things that people tell Ig are the secrets that we bury deep inside ourselves and refuse to acknowledge for fear they will surface and we might lose the fight against the temptation to do these vile things. Just imagine the veritable trove of what-the-fuckery that you keep to yourself versus what actually comes out of your mouth. Now imagine the things you would want to do if your id took over and you stopped listening to the voice in your head that says, “I wouldn’t do it if I were you… it’s hip to be square” and sounds alarmingly like Huey Lewis. HORNS is a cautionary tale, a flashlight-under-the-covers story, and… yes, a love story. Everyone who deserves a happy ending gets one (in a way) and all the assholes get what they deserve (in an awesome pay-off scene where the villain gets what’s coming to him, I actually had to look away from the pages for a few minutes and think happy thoughts before I could continue reading for the sake of my fragile little mind). Yes, there is a chunk of the narrative near the end that is supposed to be a twist and seemed gooey and cheesy and made me go, “what the hell is this Notebook shit?” but when I thought about it later, it was kind of awwww and damn it, I enjoyed The Notebook because Rachel MacAdams and Ryan Gosling are awesome actors. Anyway, check it out. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wince… you might think it’s better than Cats. Or at least one of those creepy, quirky, funny stand-alone The X-Files episodes that you might stumble upon on the Sy-Fy Channel at 3 in the morning (like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “Small Potatoes,” the whole “Dreamland” arc, or “Bad Blood” with a dash of “Terms of Endearment”—the Bruce Campbell episode, not the Shirley Maclaine movie).
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