Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 62 (4/6) -- Horns by Joe Hill

It's a tough job, being a devil. Nobody appreciates the hard work you do, and unless your cosmology is particularly Manichean, you're destined to lose badly in the end. No one would decide to become a devil deliberately, right? But that's the thing about being a devil -- you just fall into it.

Ignatius Perrish never thought that he'd know what being a devil was like -- he was a straight-arrow kid from a good family, destined for a do-gooder job -- but then everything went to hell for him a year ago. His girlfriend Merrin Williams broke up with him just hours before he was about to fly to London for his new job...and then was found dead, brutally raped and murdered, later that night. Everyone assumed that Ig did it, but he was never charged after a screw-up with the DNA evidence at a state lab. The job evaporated, of course. And Ig was left in a small New Hampshire town with people who've known him his whole life -- and all believe, completely, that he's gotten away with murder.

But Horns opens a year after Merrin's death, when things have just gotten even worse for Ig. After a drunken night -- the details of which he can't remember at all -- he wakes up with a splitting headache. And what's splitting his head most are two finger-sized horns rising up from his temples. He soon figures out that it's not a hallucination and that the horns are real. They've also given him an unsettling new power: everyone he meets is compelled to tell him their darkest, most unpleasant secrets and thoughts, especially those concerning him. And no matter who he runs into -- from his new girlfriend Glenna Nicholson to the staff at a medical clinic to the local police to his own rich and sophisticated family -- those secrets are horrible and toxic, and they all are absolutely sure that Ig killed Merrin.

But if there's one thing in the world that Ig knows for sure -- and it just might be down to that, at this point -- it's that he didn't do it. He ran away, distraught, and slept in his car out in the middle of nowhere, while someone else killed the only woman he'd ever love. And that man is still out there.

The horns give Ig power, but it's a nasty, corrosive power -- the kind that turns a man into a devil. He can learn everything about a person by touching them, and everyone is full of hate and fear and deceit. And he can influence people's actions -- but only to make them do the things they tell themselves that they shouldn't. And so Ig can't even find the time and mental calm to use his new powers to solve Merrin's murder; he's just riding the tidal wave of everyone's disgust and rage, trying desperately not to be crushed by it.

That's what the plot of Horns would be, if it moved entirely forward. But Hill embeds long flashbacks along the way, like jagged rocks in the narrative flow: the first, "Cherry," is the second section of the novel, and breaks the headlong energy of the first sixty pages to spend the next sixty explaining how Ig met Merrin and his best friend, Lee Tourneau, when they were all young teenagers, about fifteen years before. None of the other flashbacks are as long or as disruptive, but the pattern is set -- as much as Horns moves forward, it moves backwards as well, usually closely following Ig's touching someone new and learning more horrible secrets.

(Horns is structured into several sections, each exactly ten chapters long -- but those chapters are radically different lengths, and there's no obvious rationale for the different sections, as one is itself a complete flashback, and then later sections incorporate smaller flashbacks within them. It feels as if there may have been a more tightly structured novel struggling to break out of Horns -- or as if it originally was much more structured, and didn't entirely break out of that.)

Those flashbacks take the focus off of Ig, and specifically off Ig's horns -- the ostensible center of the novel. And, somewhere along the way, the reader starts to think that Ig isn't all that interesting as a devil -- all of his demons are external, and his personality comes into focus as a fairly generic wimpy "nice guy" -- and that Lee is a far more interesting and compelling figure. (For a horror novel, that is: I'd walk a mile or so out of my way to steer clear of him.)

Hill does gain some of that momentum back in the last quarter of the novel, once Ig gives up on his old life and gives in to the horns, but Horns is a stuttering horror novel, one that bounces around theological ideas but only sets them free at the very end and that constructs a too-pat, and too-tight, supernatural universe to constrain its action. The end of the novel in particular implies a lot of things about the world that Hill could have done glorious things with earlier in the book, if he wasn't preoccupied with sad-sack Ig and his mopey love for poor dead Merrin.

Of course, Horns is a second novel, after Hill's amazingly creepy Heart-Shaped Box (and his even better story collection 20th Century Ghosts); it's a cliche that sophomore efforts are disappointing. And Horns is only really disappointing compared to Heart-Shaped Box and his strongest stories (such as "Voluntary Committal" and "Best New Horror"); it's a solidly bracing and thrilling horror novel with a killer opening and a great punch at the end. If the middle meanders a bit; well, nobody's perfect, right?

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Harley Poe - What's a Devil To Do?
via FoxyTunes

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