Joe Hill is a good horror author, but not an incredibly prolific one; his first book was 20th Century Ghosts (2005), a collection of ghost stories, and his second was Heart-Shaped Box (2007), which I reviewed on this blog a couple of years ago. I really adored Heart-Shaped Box, and when I saw that Hill had a new book out, Horns (2010), I didn't hesitate to snap it up:
Was it worth the wait? Definitely! Joe Hill has produced another fast-paced, well-written novel with a bizarre engaging plot and sympathetic characters.
Ignatius Perrish wakes up in the morning to a rather pointed problem. The night before, he had gone on a drunken bender to lament the first anniversary of the brutal rape and murder of the love of his life, Merrin. For the year following her murder, Ig has been in mourning, exacerbated by the fact that everyone in town, including his family, believes that he committed the crime himself and got away with it.
Ig doesn't remember what happened during his night of drinking, but in the morning he finds two distinctly devil-like horns poking out of his skull. Seeking medical attention, he quickly finds that the horns have the power to make people confess their darkest secrets -- and perform their most twisted desires. When this power leads him to discover the true killer of Merrin, Ig sets out on a quest of revenge that will irrevocably change him and everyone he has ever been close to.
Horns is a relatively quick read: I finished it in less than two days. It starts out very fast-paced, as one can see from the brief description above; the action is interrupted regularly, however, by extended flashbacks that highlight Ig's past relationship with Merrin and his connection to his friends and family. These flashbacks were a little jarring to me at first, but they are extremely important in the overall story and its conclusion.
The novel is rather nasty, and seems nastier than Hill's previous Heart-Shaped Box (at least as far as I remember). In addition to the murder/rape that is the focus of the tale, we hear about people's darkest dreams and see them act them out. None of the gruesome events seem unnecessary or excessive, however, and match the dark mood of the story.
There are two things in Hill's writing that really stood out for me in HSB -- the characters and the plot twists -- and both of those things are on full display in Horns. The characters are fleshed-out magnificently and, love them or hate them, I believed in them by the end of the book. Though the plot starts out with a very simple idea -- horns -- it takes a number of unexpected twists and turns and it is nearly impossible to predict where it will end.
Curiously, when I reached the end of the novel I immediately started comparing its ending to "Lost". Most likely the television show was still on my mind due to its recent finale, but both stories do weave an unusual mystery with lots of bizarre unexplained aspects. Though I really loved the ending of "Lost", I felt that it was tied together a little clumsily, with lots of loose threads left hanging. Hill's Horns also introduces a lot of mysteries, many of which are never completely explained: What's with the horns? Where did the power come from? Is Ig really a devil? What's with the snakes? What happened the night Ig got drunk? What is the meaning of the strange treehouse that Ig and Merrin found as a child? Hill answers just the right amount of questions, striking a great balance between satisfying our curiosity and maintaining a sense of wonder and mystery.
In conclusion, Joe Hill has demonstrated yet again that his writing is worth the wait!
Joe Hill has a website and a blog here, where one can see his other (non-novel) writing projects.