horns HORNS

Joe Hill (joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£8.99

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache…when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.

Ig Perrish may not remember what he did the previous night, but he does remember the previous year, the year since the woman he had loved since they were fourteen had been brutally raped and murdered, a hideous crime for which Ig was the prime suspect. But these new additions, these horns growing from his temples, are game changers: when people see them they feel compelled to tell Ig their deepest darkest secrets, and it isn’t long before he discovers the true identity of Merrin’s killer. After that, it’s a matter of letting human nature take its course, unleashing the demon that so desperately wants to get out and sending Merrin’s killer to the hell in which he belongs.

I first read Joe Hill’s sophomore novel when it was published back in 2010; the imminent cinematic release of Alexandre Aja’s film adaptation in British cinemas was good enough reason to revisit Horns, and I’m happy to discover that it holds up well to that second read. At the centre of this dark and often blackly comic novel is Ig Perrish, a young man whose whole life has been pulled out from under him following the murder of his long-term girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Unable to provide a satisfactory alibi, Ig has been the only suspect since the murder took place a year earlier, and the lack of substantial evidence is the only thing keeping him out of prison. His new appendages, and the strange power they have over the people Ig meets, mean that he will quickly get to the bottom of the mystery.

Hill tells the story in a very non-linear form, jumping from one time period to the next, giving us brief glimpses of the relationships between the central characters – Ig, Merrin and Lee Tourneau – at various points between their initial meeting in their early teens, through young adulthood, to the present day. The identity of Merrin’s killer is revealed early in the novel, and is as shocking, at that point, for the reader as it is for Ig himself. As we get further glimpses into the lives of these people, the shock begins to wear off and we begin to see that nothing is quite as it seems or, to be more precise, quite as Ig Perrish believes it to be.

As time passes, Ig grows more and more to resemble the archetypal demon: the horns grow larger; the skin turns a deep red following an incident in a burning car; and Ig takes to carrying a pitchfork to protect himself. But there’s an interesting juxtaposition here: the more demonic Ig becomes, the more it becomes clear that he is the least demonic character in the novel. The revelations forced out of the people he meets by the horns on his head show a dark and unlikeable side to many of the people Ig loves:

“I can’t see any of my friends. I can’t go to church. Everyone stares at me. They all know what you did. It makes me want to die. And then you show up here to take me for walks. I hate when you take me for walks and people see us together. You don’t know how hard it is to pretend I don’t hate you. I always thought there was something wrong with you. The screamy way you’d be breathing after you ran anywhere. You were always breathing through your mouth like a dog, especially around pretty girls.”

This from Ig’s grandmother, Vera, who gets her comeuppance shortly afterwards in one of the novel’s many laugh-out-loud moments. The evil here is of a more human nature than the demonic one the reader might expect; there is a mundane explanation for the rape and murder of Merrin, an all-too-familiar, plucked-from-the-headlines quality that is more frightening than the man with horns around whom the story is constructed.

Hill uses the story to examine the question of faith (Ig and Merrin meet in church and for most of his short life, Ig is the very definition of humanitarian), and the difference between “good” and “evil” as concepts. Bad things happen to good people, he tells us, and sometimes good people need a little help to get their own back. Do the horns and the pitchfork make Ig Perrish a demon, or just a man with a demonic outer shell? Hill leaves it to the reader to decide.

Lacking the bone-chilling scares that he gives us in both Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, Joe Hill’s Horns is no less frightening for its close examination of the evil things of which mankind is possible. This is a wonderfully dark tale with a very definite sense of humour that often leads the reader to laugh out loud.

Dale sat breathing strenuously in the muck. He looked up the shaft of the pitchfork and squinted into Ig’s face. He shaded his eyes with one hand. “You got rid of your hair.” Paused, then added, almost as an afterthought, “And grew horns. Jesus. What are you?”

“What’s it look like?” Ig asked. “Devil in a blue dress.”

An instant classic, Horns commands the reader’s attention from the first page to the last and serves as an excellent starting point for Joe Hill virgins. I, for one, can’t wait to see the film adaptation, despite the fact that the Ig in my head bears no resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe. This is a must-read, if you haven’t already, and well worth a revisit if you have.

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