The Horns of a Dilemma

Horns by Joe Hill (2010): Ignatius “Ig” Perrish wakes up from an alcohol-fueled black-out to discover that horns have sprouted on his head overnight. A year earlier, somebody murdered his longtime girlfriend Merrin, a murder most people believe that Ig committed. So begins Horns, the second novel by Joe Hill (after Heart-Shaped Box).

Ig’s horns give him some (mostly) useful powers. People will tell him pretty much anything bad they’ve ever done, without prompting, and not remember doing so (or seeing Ig, for that matter) afterwards. And when he touches people, he can see every bad thing they’ve ever done in exhaustive detail. When you’re investigating a murder, powers like these seem almost heaven-sent.

Merrin had suddenly broken up with Ig the night of the murder, which was also the night before Ig was set to fly to London, England to work for Amnesty International for six months. She said they should see other people, as they’d been dating steadily for ten years — since Ig was 15 and Merrin 14.

After an argument in a roadhouse, Ig stormed out, leaving Merrin to find her own way home. And soon thereafter she was dead. There wasn’t enough evidence to link Ig to the crime, but pretty much everyone in Ig’s small New England town “knows” he did it and got away with it. Everyone except Ig and the murderer.

The early stages of Horns see Hill working in the somewhat familiar territory of Thomas Disch’s Minnesota Quartet, four vaguely linked, blackly humourous and satiric supernatural novels from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ig’s early adventures with his horns lead to terrible revelations set within a storyline dotted with social and political satire directed at the Right and, more generally, the seemingly ‘good’ pillars of any community. Everyone has secrets: pathetic secrets, awful secrets, blackly comic secrets.

However, Hill is a much softer touch than Disch, and the novel moves into more humanistic territory even as the supernatural grows in importance. Lengthy flashbacks gradually fill us in on what really happened, while all the time Ig’s powers — and resemblance to a traditional Christian devil — grow. It’s an enjoyable ride, chock full of pop culture references and allusions, and possessed of a truly awful, pathetic antagonist. The action gets a bit repetitive towards the end, but it’s nonetheless a solid read and a pretty impressive second novel. Recommended.

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