Wednesday, March 24, 2010

HORNS: A Novel by Joe Hill

As the Rolling Stones once said, "You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need". That's how I felt about Joe Hill's HORNS. Once I got past the first scene, which I found a bit confusing (horns? a girl pigging out on doughnuts?), I couldn't put this book down, and actually had to force myself to put it aside and parse it out in small doses to make it last longer.

You see, one morning, after Ignatius Perrish spent the night "drunk and doing terrible things", he woke up with a hangover, a raging headache, and a pair of horns growing from his head. Not just any horns, but horns that had the power to make total strangers want to tell him their deepest, darkest thoughts. What he learned wasn't so great - everyone in the small town he grew up in believed he'd gotten away with brutally murdering his girlfriend a year earlier.

What drew me in and kept me there was how I honestly didn't know for quite some time whether Ig's horns were real, or just a figment of his tortured imagination. I loved how I wasn't sure myself whether Ig had murdered Merrin or not, and whether every evil thing that the secondary characters confessed to him was just part of an overall guilty psychosis. I found myself truly looking forward to each new character encounter, just to find out "what evil dwelt within the minds of men" (and women).

By the time I got to the middle of the novel, I could see where the author was flagging a bit, but I didn't hold it against him - I really wanted to see where it went and what would happen to poor, tortured Ig. I wanted to know if Merrin was the good girl she seemed to be, or if she, too, had the Devil inside. Joe Hill is obviously a fan of old time rock-n-roll, and the song references got to be a bit much (I had to roll my eyes at a particular plot point involving the Devil in a blue dress), but this was SUCH a good exploration of the evil and the good contained within the human heart, and our ongoing struggle to determine which side is going to win. Hill's writing style was so simple, yet so poignant, that I found myself reading certain passages over again ("The corn whispered frantically, spreading false rumors about him." "The wind caught her hair and did pretty things with it.")

As an aside, I'll point out that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, and (no offense to Mr. King), this was easily as good as anything his father has ever written. It was clear to me, however, that this book reflected the author's own style and voice, not his father's.

I will admit I found the ending a bit frenetic and somewhat fantastical, but again, it IS a horror novel, and after all the buildup, it could hardly be something as easy as "the bad guy got his, and they all lived happily ever after". As the song goes and as Hill's characters ultimately discovered, you can't always get what you want, but you get what you need. In this case, that goes for the reader, too.

Despite a few flaws, this one is going on my keeper shelf, and unlike many second novels, I think this one was far better than Hill's first (A Heart-Shaped Box).


Indigo said...

I throughly enjoyed Joe Hill's - Heartshaped Box. I couldn't really get into 20th Century Ghost. I'm relieved this book sounds as if he's getting back to something I can enjoy again. (Hugs)Indigo

Terri Garey said...

I definitely thought this was his best so far, Indigo. I thought he did a great job with his characterization - there were some odd plot bits thrown in here and there, but overall it was quite good.