Horns--Joe Hill

I have to hand it to him, Joe Hill can certainly write.  He is a great weaver of stories--his first two books, 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box were remarkable debut pieces  In this, the sophomore novel, he is true to form.

That is not to say the Horns is without fault, but rather that despite its faults, the book is a very enjoyable read.  And it is worth noting that the faults spring not from timidity of purpose or an inability to handle the material, but rather from a striding ambition to deal with the big issues that horror and dark fantasy are best at exploring.

Let's start with the difficulties with the book then. They boil down to one essential point--the main point of any work of dark fiction--Joe Hill struggles and struggles hard with the nature of evil.  In some cases, this struggle results in some uneasy juxtapositions that can easily be misread.  For example in one particular setting of the book the placement of a menorah as the centerpiece can easily be misread as antisemitism because this Menorah occupies a central place in the origin of evil.  However, the real point of the menorah is a signal that we should be understanding Satan with a more profound Old Testament insight of Satan as adversary--as prosecuting judge/enabler--as God's right hand person and not so much Satan as personification of evil as Christian Theology would have it.  In fact, much of the book is an attempt to dismantle the Christian view of evil and Satan and to reconstruct along Miltonian/manichean  lines.  In some cases there is an almost Pullman-like view of God.  But none of this is resolved or clear.

The second major difficulty springs from the working-out of the first. The story itself has unlikely grooves, twists, and unexplained events that do not work well to illuminate the central and guiding themes of the book.  From time travel or presence in eternity through the explanation of the sociopathy of the main character, there are elements that seem jagged--they don't fit well.  Is love a protection or a diversion or nonexistent?  Struggle as he might to produce a coherent synthesis--I don't think Mr. Hill succeeds.

That said, let's remember that we're dealing with popular fiction, not a theological treatise; and we're dealing with an author who wants to address serious themes seriously in his popular fiction.  That tendency in itself is profoundly admirable.  We're also dealing with an author who is rapidly gaining superb control of the story-teller's craft.  While there may be some vague, obscure, or confusing trends in the book, Joe Hill is telling us a story--one that he intends to grab us by the throat and hold us from first page to its very end.

So, what is the book about.  Well, we have twentieth century parallel that will be obvious when I mention Gregor Samsa.  Indeed, our protagonist, Iggy (Ignatius Perrish) wakes up one morning to discover that during a night he cannot remember the details of, he has sprouted a pair of horns--a pair of horns that comes with a remarkable gift or set of gifts.  As a sensible person, he sets off first thing to the doctor where he discovers just what the horns can do.

Seems that about a year ago Iggy was accused of the brutal murder of his girlfriend, Merrin Williams, and was released without much of an investigation thanks to the pull of his famous and wealthy parents.  But Iggy is still in mourning and still feeling a great deal of guilt for the events that surrounded the death of said girlfriend.

Combine these simple beginnings with a sociopath, a golden cross, morse code, time travel, cherry bombs, a treehouse, and some intense if somewhat conflicting thought over the central theme (Is God good?  Is Satan a sign of God's goodness and in a perverse way a goad to goodness? Does love protect and preserve or does it merely confuse? Are some people simply born bad?  etc.) and you have one bang-up book.

The writing is blazing, intensely readable, provocative.  The wrestling with theme is at times breathtaking and at times aggravating.  The assurance with which the author pursues his end is a wonder to behold.   All of these elements combine with a deep interest in all of the characters, good and bad, and a series of musical notes, observations, and puns--not the least of which would be the chief unstated one from INXS:"the devil inside,"  and you have a really remarkable, enjoyable novel.

Highly recommended for those who are really, really interested in dark fiction/light reading with serious undertones.  I especially admire this book for bringing some serious thought to a not-terribly-serious strain of our literature.  The flaws aside, nothing stops me from awarding this book next-to-highest honors for a compelling read.  If you are interested in dark fantasy/horror at all, you would do yourself a favor by reading this book.

(A most excellent airplane read!)

****1/2

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