Horns by Joe Hill

I’m a big fan of Joe Hill’s work. I think my favorite is his collection of short stories 20th Century Ghosts, which is full of quirky twists on the horror genre. The story that sticks out the most deals with an editor going through his slush pile–a task that can be one of the circles of hell, I’ve heard–and finding that most elusive of things: a fresh short story by an unknown talent. Then the editor goes to court that talent and winds up in a scene similar to the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Bad move.

It’s hard to sustain that type of story for a full-length novel, but I found Hill’s novel Heart Shaped Box admirable, combining seemingly unreconcilable things from pop culture with a haunting and producing a delicious horror story.

I started Horns with a sense of anticipation, expecting that same kind of knockdown, and for most of the book, it was there. A scene involving the youthful protagonist Iggy Perrish, his older brother, a cherry bomb, and a turkey was brilliant, and Hill’s ability to draw characters, both male and female, is spot-on. In the end, though, I found Horns too similar to Heart Shaped Box and my interest flagged while finishing the book.

In Heart Shaped Box, the protagonist is an aging musician with an interest in all things that are evil since it’s good for his stage persona. In Horns, the protagonist is the son of a famous jazz musician and brother to another famous musician, a trumpet player with his own TV show. Both protagonists are dealing with the deaths of their recent romantic partners, licking their wounds while taking up with second-best girlfriends. In Horns, I did appreciate the more sympathetic portrayal of the second best, Glenna: “She looked good, a curvy girl in stonewashed gray jeans, a sleeveless black shirt, and a black studded belt. He could see the Playboy Bunny on her exposed hip, which was a trashy touch, but who hadn’t made mistakes, done things to themselves they wished they could take back.”

Horns starts with an interesting scenario. Iggy Perrish wakes up with a terrible hangover and discovers that overnight he’s sprouted horns on his head. The horns appear to act as radio antennae, and people give Iggy their unedited thoughts when he speaks with them. If Iggy touches somebody, he can see what they’ve done, reading their deepest, darkest secrets.

After setting up this scary situation, Hill goes back to when Iggy was fifteen and met his best friend Lee and the love of his life, Merrin, filling in the backstory. Here, Iggy is shown as a kid full of high jinks and spirit, but he is also kind and compassionate, almost saintlike. I wonder if it’s this section that makes the end of the novel not work for me. After seeing the heroic Iggy, I found it a stretch to jump back to Iggy as the devil, coming to avenge the murder of his girlfriend. The ending of Horns fell flat for me, and I really didn’t want it too after loving the first two-thirds of the book.

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