Monday, October 24, 2011

A Review of "Horns" (by Joe Hill)

Earlier this year, I decided to finally pull the trigger on reading something by Stephen King's son, Joe Hill.  (I'd already read We're All In This Together, the excellent story collection by King's other son, Owen King, so I figured it was high time to do my diligence and give Hill a shot, too.)  I started with the first volume of his excellent comic book, Locke & Key, then moved on to his own story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, which blew me away.

Frequent readers of this blog will by now probably have figured out my customary attack pattern when it comes to writing about novels: I prefer the old multi-part-post method, wherein I take three or more posts and spend some time living with the novel at hand, trying to work through the various facets of it which stand out to me.  I've only done that with Misery, The Tommyknockers, and The Dark Half so far, as well as to the Marvel Comics version of The Little Sisters of Eluria ... but trust me, more is on the way.  This is an ongoing project, one I don't anticipate ending in a year the first three numerals of which are "201."  And I've got longer-range and vastly more ambitious plans that that, too; whether I can bring any of them to fruition is another matter altogether, but plans are most definitely in the works.

With that in mind, allow me to explain why I'm not giving the multi-post treatment to Horns.  Trust me when I tell you that it ain't because Joe Hill's novel doesn't deserve it; it deserves it.  No, it's for two other reasons: firstly, it's because I've only read the novel once, and therefore don't feel like I'm familiar enough with it to write about it at more than a cursory level; and secondly, it's because it's still a relatively new novel, and I'd therefore like to give my audience more time to read it without me spoiling it for them.  After all, my lengthier essays are always written with the assumption that anyone reading them is familiar with the books/movies/etc. that I'm discussing.

This, then, is more along the lines of the type of review which is designed to sway you one way or another in answering the question of whether to read the book in the first place.

And here's a spoiler for the rest of the review: you should read Horns.

Horns is the story of a fellow in his late twenties who wakes up one morning to find himself hungover, and worse:

"Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.  He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances.  He was so ill -- wet-eyed and weak -- he didn't think anything of it at first, was too hungover for thinking or worry.
          But when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.  He lurched in surprise, and for the second time in twelve hours he pissed on his feet."  (Horns, Chapter One)

That's the entirety of Chapter One, by the way, and I'd wager that those two paragraphs ought to be sufficient to snare the interest of a great many readers.  They certainly worked on me, and would have even if I hadn't already been committed to reading the novel due to its tangential relationship to Stephen King: as Steve himself might say, those two paragraphs make for a pretty good hooker.

 As one might expect, the novel takes a number of twists and turns, and it would be criminal for me to give any of them away here.  So, let me just tell you what the story's next development is: Ig discovers that not only does he have a set of throbbing new horns growing from his skull, he's also got devil-powers to go along with them.  The first person he sees post-discovery, his live-in semi-girlfriend, shockingly, begins revealing her darkest and most hidden desires to Ig, and he soon discovers that not only can people not help but tell him their secret desires ... he can also influence them to act on those desires.  I'm not giving anything away by saying that this leads to several darkly hilarious scenes, and also to scenes which are decidedly less hilarious.

If that sounds to you like the origin story for some particularly fucked-up superhero -- or, perhaps, a super-villain -- then you're not far off the mark, but if that sounds unappealing, don't let it discourage you; this element is by no means the primary focus of the novel.  No, the primary focus is what happens when Ig figures out that with his new powers comes a great opportunity: to solve a murder which has happened in the relatively recent past.

Hill's Horns is a tragi-comic murder mystery told in a somewhat magic-realist style with strong elements of antiheroism and evident awareness of comic-book tropes, as well as a fascinatingly flexible theological perspective.  In other words, it's a little difficult to categorize.  I don't have a problem with that, but some readers might, and one question Stephen King might potentially have is this: should they read it?  Which is to actually ask this: is Joe Hill anything like Stephen King as a writer?

I can answer that question two ways.  The first is by merely answering those two questions, respectively, "yes" and "not really."  The second, more honest, way of answering both would be to say yes, King fans are officially given my recommendation to seek out Horns, as well as a warning that there is no guarantee -- none, at least, that can be based upon their enjoyment of King's work -- that they will enjoy Hill's approach to storytelling.  He's a terrific writer, but his prose is more stylized, less accessible; not to a huge degree, but long-time King readers will certainly notice the differences, even if they can't identify them.  Hill isn't yet quite as skilled at writing characters as is his famous father; he makes up for that by being more skilled -- more skilled by far -- with humor.  I think I might also make the claim that Hill is already better at writing from a place of conflictedness; I'm not sure we're always supposed to know how to feel about Hill's characters, and while King is no stranger to that type of storytelling -- I'm thinking of The Gunslinger, in which we're not entirely sure whether Roland is a commendable hero or a damnable villain -- it's something that he hasn't made a specialty; in seems to be Hill's stock-in-trade, and I can imagine some King readers revolting against it.  After all, The Gunslinger is not universally adored among King fans, or even among Dark Tower fans.

Also, despite its patently horrific elements, Horns -- somewhat like Hill's short story "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," another tale of horrific transformation told from the vantage point of the transformed man -- is not what I would consider to be a horror novel; it's related to the genre in its implications, but the actuality of it is that it's more of a supernatural mystery tale than it is anything else.  I've seen a few reviews expressing dissatisfaction with the novel that seems, to my mind, to come from defeated expectations; if you go into this novel expecting a King-like horror tale, you might well be let down by what Hill actually has up his sleeve.  Otherwise, though, this is a cracking good tale, extremely well-told and worth your time.

Hill reads from Horns in Toronto, March 22, 2010

For those of you who are curious about Hill but not entirely swayed by this review (or by that charming photo above), I really cannot strongly enough recommend 20th Century Ghosts.  It is as good a story collection as I've read in recent memory, and also a terrific showcase for Hill's range as a writer: it runs the gamut from pure horror to straight drama, with magic realism and postmodernism and numerous other isms floating around in there, too.  There is virtually no way that, if you are a relatively experienced reader of fiction, you could digest that collection and not know if Horns is a novel for you; if you've found yourself enjoying only one or two of Hill's short stories, then Horns probably isn't going to be your liking, but if you've enjoyed all or nearly all of them, then Horns is almost certainly going to be well worth your time.  

If there happens to be any lingering doubt after that, pick up the first few volumes of Locke & Key to give you an idea of how Hill operates in longer storytelling form.

For my tastes, Horns gets an enthusiastic recommendation.

A final note: the trade paperback edition of the novel also includes the (unrelated, except perhaps thematically) short story "The Devil on the Staircase," an ingeniously-constructed tale of an Italian peasant who ... well, you'll see.

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