The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.
How do you follow up a highly successful (and truly scary) debut novel? For a lot of authors, there is an effort to recapture some of that same lightning in a bottle, seeing if continuing with more of what brought them to the dance will get them another go around. For others, it’s time to shift gears somewhat, and see what else is waiting in your pen. Joe Hill took the latter approach, and stepped aside from the more visceral horror of his debut with the release of his second book, Horns. That isn’t to say that Horns doesn’t have horror elements to it. It’s just that the story is more centered around a personal tale, laced heavily with dark fantasy. Think more along the lines of Gaiman, and less like King, and you’ve got a good idea of where Joe Hill took his second book.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before Horns made its way to the big screen. This review isn’t about the film version, however. After all, in the case of direct adaptations from one medium to another, one really needs to spend time looking through the original first, and analyzing whether or not it worked, before one can proceed to take in the alternate version. There are definitely merits to the different types of medium, and what works as a novel may not work on the big screen, or vice versa. This is a lesson that Hill’s father had to learn a few times, and it remains to be seen if that lesson was passed along to the son.
Horns, by Joe Hill
What would you do if, one day, you awoke with supernatural powers? What if those powers came along with literal horns growing out of your head? That’s along the lines of what Joe Hill’s main character, Ig Parrish, has to figure out when he awakes with just that exact set of circumstances. The horns are invisible to others, and yet they present Ig with a strange set of powers, which both cause him more grief, and allow him to unravel a mystery from his own past that’s been haunting him for years.
Those aren’t the only questions that Hill presents in the book, however. By gifting Ig with the specific circumstances he has, he also makes the reader wonder whether or not one of the greatest villains in all of literary history is actually worth, in a bit of a paraphrase of the Rolling Stones, sympathy. Are powers like the one’s Ig displays, often associated with evil, truly coming from a place of darkness? Or can they be used to good as well? This is part of what lies at the center of Horns, and part of what makes it a worthwhile read.
The main character of the story is Ig Parrish, the younger son of a famous musician. Ig spent much of his life growing up living in the shadow of his older brother, Terry, and stayed generally in the public’s good graces. That all came crashing down with the rape and murder of Merrin Williams, Ig’s girlfriend. Now, year’s later, despite being innocent, and never even being accused of the crime, Ig lives a life where his every move is watched carefully. The public knows who killed Merrin, and they aren’t going to let little things like facts get in the way. Deep down, Ig is a good person who’s struggled with the suspicions thrust upon him, and the horns give him a glimpse into what might be a way out.
Along with Ig, the story also follows Lee Tourneau, who is set up as Ig’s nemesis, Ig’s brother Terry, who has been along for the critical junctures in Ig’s life, and, through flashbacks, Merrin, Ig’s long-lost love. These characters all weave through the story to help support Ig’s choices, either through their current actions, or through their concealed thoughts. However, even when the story focuses on these individuals, they are still largely seen through Ig’s eyes, driving his role as the main character.
Then, of course, there are the eponymous horns. They are more of a plot device than a character, and yet they do have a bit of a personality of their own. They provide Ig with his supernatural powers, and seem to try to drive him towards terrible acts, but none of these acts can be things that the victims haven’t considered for themselves. Also, while Ig is pushed towards getting others to give in to their own darker sides, he is by no means forced to do so. In many ways, the horns present him with more choice about how to proceed, making sure to lay as many of the cards on the table as possible. They aren’t specifically good or evil; that choice is up to the bearer to do as he sees fit, with the new information provided.
The town of Gideon, New Hampshire, as presented in Horns, is recognizable as being similar to many other cities across America. An abandoned, run-down foundry, filled (naturally) with snakes, serves as a sort of home base for Ig as the story weaves towards its conclusion. The nearby river is home to some of Ig’s best memories of his childhood with Lee, Terry, and Merrin, and is critical in some of his worst moments during his adult life. However, laced through the fairly mundane aspects of Gideon is a definite supernatural thread, best represented by the Treehouse of the Mind. By inserting this space into Horns, Hill not only makes it clear that Gideon is not completely of our world, but he also provides a potential connecting point to his later stories. However, keeping the setting of the world relatively realistic helps connect the reader with what is happening to Ig, and allows them to wonder how they would react in a similar situation.
Ig is walking a dark path before the events that lead to his horns sprouting, and he remains there for a short time after. Over time, however, he is able to use his new gifts to actively ferret out truths that had been concealed from him for years, including why his relationship with Merrin was broken off all that time ago. In some ways, Ig is able to become something of an anti-hero, using questionable means to ultimately yield better results for the community around him. His presence wasn’t allowing the people of Gideon to move on. Through his own trial by fire, both literal and figurative, Ig is able to give Gideon the fresh start that it needs.
The story is broken up into sections, each detailing different aspects of what is happening. The beginning tells of Ig learning that he has new horns sprouting from his head. The second section ventures into the past, showing how Ig, Terry, Lee, and Merrin all knew each other in high school. For the third section, details of Merrin’s murder are released, Ig’s power grows, and the Treehouse of the Mind is introduced. The fourth section focuses on Lee Tourneau, and his life. Finally, the fifth section brings the story to its conclusion, wrapping up the loose threads handily. Through this segmentation, Hill is able to break up the pacing of the story, and do so in a more natural way than simply jumping through time from chapter to chapter. In fact, the story almost feels as though it was written for episodic television, with each section being its own major plot point. In fact, it is either after a a shocking moment, or a huge revelation, that the segments jump to the next, giving the reader a bit of a built-in break, allowing for time to set the book down, step away, and catch their breath. The pacing of Horns suits the story that’s being told, with the momentum following Ig’s own journey.
Horns is not a standard horror novel. In fact, many would be hard-pressed to call it horror at all. What Horns does, and what makes me consider it in the horror vein, is that it tells a very personal story, and breaks down a lot of the main character with darker means. Put yourself in Ig’s shoes, realizing that you suddenly are privy to what others have been hiding from you all of these years, including their personal feelings, and you can see how the story tucks nicely into the horror genre, even if it is milder and more personal. The story also is specifically crafted to make you question whether evil really is evil, or if the evil is simply lurking inside of everyone already, and can be coaxed out.
In a lot of ways, what Horns did, at least for me, was think about perception, and how that can fuel reactions. Whether accurate or not, your perception of another person will color your interactions with them. If you truly believe that someone is working for good, you will always give them far more than their fair shake. If you think they’re corrupt, you will never believe a word that they say. Ig’s case takes it to a heightened level, but we all deal with perception (and misperception) day in and day out. Perhaps reading a book like Horns will encourage people to look with a more open mindset.