Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Book Review: Horns by Joe Hill

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

"Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with one hell of a hangover, a raging headache... and a pair of horns growing from his temples.

"Once, Ig lived the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned American musician, and the younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, Ig had security and wealth and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more - he had the love of Merrin Williams, a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic. Then beautiful, vivacious Merrin was gone - raped and murdered, under inexplicable circumstances - with Ig the only suspect. He was never tried for the crime, but in the court of public opinion, Ig was and always would be guilty.

"Now Ig is possessed with a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look, and he means to use it to find the man who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere.

"It's time for a little revenge; it's time the devil had his due."


It's been nearly three years since Joe Hill made such a decisive debut to the horror genre with the cracking narrative of a miserable old rocker drowning in his own bitterness whose past literally comes back to haunt him. At the time, it was difficult to discuss Heart-Shaped Box without reference to the somewhat mixed blessing of its author's paternal heritage - Hill's nom de plume was revealed even before that novel's publication - but the terrifying tale with which he exploded into the scene, not to mention the impressive collection of short stories that succeeded it, proved strong enough to cement his reputation as among the great new voices of speculative fiction. Any other considerations were rendered moot the moment Judas Coyne discovered exactly whose cursed suit he had ordered from eBay.

The Speculative Scotsman has had an eye out for Hill's second novel since, and I'm pleased to report that if Horns is anything to go by, this is not an author at all intimidated by the dreaded sophomore slump. If anything, Horns is a superior work of fiction than its esteemed predecessor, for though Heart-Shaped Box was an incredible debut, it had its faults: slightly overlong and too steeped in pop culture for the references that came thick and fast to stand the test of time, some aspects of Heart-Shaped Box floundered when its narrative went too far off the beaten path of its primary thrust.

With his second novel, however, Hill takes the measure of both of those problems. Horns is pacey and direct from start to finish. Somehow, the author makes exciting storytelling from even the occasional flashbacks to pivotal encounters of Ig's youth, and though he still manages to namecheck Norah Jones, Dean Koontz and Guns 'n Roses within the first 30 pages, Hill is not sidetracked by either diversion for long.

Horns has as its snappy premise the startling notion of a man who people are compelled to be entirely truthful with. Like Judas, the grumpy protagonist of Heart-Shaped Box, Ig is a privileged individual who notoriety turns against him. When the love of his life is raped and murdered, Ig is the only real suspect, and though he has been cleared of any wrongdoing, Ig has since descended a downward spiral into the unrelenting clutches of depression and self-pity. When Horns begins - a year to the day of Merrin's untimely death and after a night of remembrance spent drunk and doing who knows what - he wakes "a pale, gaunt man with tragically receding hair, a goatee, and curving horns" poking out from his temples, bloody-tipped and bone-driven; horns that mean anyone who Ig talks to will share, unbidden, their darkest secrets and innermost regrets.

Hill makes the most of his high concept, and though some readers may be put off by Ig's too-literal transformation towards the third act, he grounds the devilish aspects of his protagonist in a cast of characters that practically leap off the page. I won't say much about them for fear of spoiling the myriad surprises Horns has in store, but between Merrin, Terry, Lee and Glenda, Hill renders Ig's allies and enemies alike with startling precision and subtle brush-strokes. In point of fact, Ig himself is the only character that doesn't immediately appeal; to begin with, he seems less of an individual than a man at the mercy of the beats of Hill's narrative. Ig, however, comes into his own soon enough, most particularly through the aforementioned flashbacks of better, bygone days which bring the likes of The Body and Hearts in Atlantis to mind.

If I could level only a single piece of praise in the direction of Horns, it would be that I had a sneaking suspicion as to who murdered Merrin within a few moments of first hearing the responsible party's name. At that point, I was already having such a whale of a time with Hill's incredible second novel that I would gladly have plodded through the remainder towards a climax I'd seen coming hundreds of pages before - it's the journey that counts, after all, not the destination. But Horns metes our revelation with shocking speed; an hour into my reading Hill discloses the very fact I'd feared would take the entire novel to arrive at. And the surprises certainly don't stop there.

I've said too much already. Let me close out this review with a quote that I feel speaks to Hill's staggering talent. Of his brother, Ig observes that Terry "had inherited their father’s most precious gift: the more he practiced at a thing, the less practiced it sounded, and the more natural and lively and unexpected it became." With Heart-Shaped Box and now Horns under his belt, Hill has shown himself to every bit the equal of his father - if not his better in terms of their respective recent efforts. The more this man writes, the better it gets, and though at the time of this writing Horns is itself still a few weeks away from general release in the UK, I can't help myself: I've begun to anticipate Hill's next novel already. If five drafts and three more years is the cost of another book as original and exciting as this, then that's a price I'm perfectly prepared to pay. Hill has more twists and tricks up his sleeve than the very best conjurers, and between its characters, its concept and its unrelenting pace, Horns outshines even the brilliant first blush of an astonishingly convincing and entertaining new voice in speculative fiction.


by Joe Hill
March 2010, Gollancz: London

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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