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Book Review: Horns by Joe Hill

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Do you love horror? Thrillers? Chillers? Did you wake up this morning feeling a knot of strange expectation in your chest, a strange, unwordly pull around the area of your naughty bits? Don't worry, it's not a heart-attack or the onset of some horrible social disease. It's Joe Hill's new novel Horns. It's on bookshelves today. And it's calling you.

The story is straightforward and compelling. Ignatius Perrish is having a bad year. It began with his girlfriend being brutally murdered. Ig was the primary suspect, but beat the case, which doesn't exactly clear him in the eyes of those around him. He's fallen into despair and degradation, and just when it couldn't get any worse he goes off on a bender and wakes up the next morning with a pair of horns and a nasty new talent for picking up people's darkest secrets.

Shouldn't make a murderer too hard to find, then, should it?

The novel follows Ig as he develops his new ability and discovers the truth behind the death of his beloved Merrin. It's a juicy, gritty premise, and Hill plays it for all that he can. He wallows around in the easy bits up front, having Ig read the nastiest inner desires of the nicest people around him, revealing layers of hypocrisy and nastiness all around him. But then Hill twists the knife, having Ig inadvertently confront those closest to him, friends and relatives,  finding out exactly what they think of him during his darkest hours.

Hill has a natural gift for knowing just how to play on our expectations. He lets us see pompous blowhards be exposed for the jerks we've always hoped and prayed they would be, but then he subverts these set-ups by throwing in moments of completely exposed, raw nerve humanity. Just when you're most thrilled at watching the devil get his due, Hill reminds you, at times heart-breakingly, whose side you're actually on.

It's that understanding of some of the deeper, primal essences of horror that make Hill's works such enjoyable and affecting reads. Here Hill knows what true horror auteurs have always known, but few ever truly master: Sometimes people want to be the monster. The great classic horror stories like Frankenstein and Dracula show us deeply wounded creatures who fight back violently against the society around them, and as much as we know that Dr. Frankenstein needs to get that creature of his under control or that Van Helsing needs to get that vampire but quick, we feel a little sad when the monsters meet their end.

It's fun to read Hill's devil do his work. Much like other caddishly charming devils, from Glen Duncan's lad lit lothario in I, Lucifer to Milton's silver-tongued fallen angel in Paradise Lost, mankind has grappled for centuries with exactly why it can feel so good to be so bad. It only seems natural that Ignatius basically puts on a devil's suit for the work he sets about doing.

The audience isn't let off so easily, though. The moment of revelation as to who killed Merrin comes fairly early in the book, but right at that moment where the audience is whooped up into a frenzy of righteous anger, just as Ignatius is, Hill sideswipes the reader by completely shifting the narrative and taking the story back a dozen years or so to when Ig and the murderer first meet. The betrayal becomes all the more painful because, knowing what we know, we're now thrown into an extended flashback that, contrary to the nasty business that has come before, is a warm-hearted coming-of-age story about three friends growing up together. The tension becomes unbearable as the novel slowly, carefully makes its way towards the tragedy we know inevitably awaits.

Hill earns the emotions he pulls out of the reader by filling the story with very human and sympathetic characters. In a genre where it's easy to coast by with the simple archetypes of Villain and Victim, and where you're often asked to like a character for the simple reason that you're told to because at least they're not a murderer, Hill crafts complex, three-dimensional characters who all, at some point, earn various degrees of sympathy and horror.

This is only Hill's second novel, but already he's shown himself to be a craftsman of great skill, and is fast becoming one of my most anticipated authors. Horns manages to be both a gripping nail-biter and an earnest, thoughtful examination of love, family and friendships that constantly totter on the brink of our own base instincts. If there's a fault in the novel, it's that it is almost too well constructed. All the questions one is struck by about who a character is and why they act a certain way are all very directly answered within the course of the novel's action when perhaps a little mystery and a few doorways left closed would have given the novel a bit more weight, made it feel a bit more real and a bit less orchestrated.

But then again, what we're reading isn't real, it's a story about a man who sprouts horns and is given unnatural abilities by unseen forces, and sometimes it's a good thing to watch a story like this be so beautifully orchestrated. Hill may be trying a bit too hard to play on our heart-strings, but he does end up making a damned fine tune. All-in-all this is one of the best reads, especially within the world of horror, that I've read in a long, long time. Pick it up. Read it. Give the devil his due.

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About Jake Thomas