Two of the better genre books I’ve read in the last few years were by Joe Hill. His novel Heart Shaped Box was an excellent story of how people can be haunted not just by ghosts but by their pasts and their misdeeds. His short story collection 20th Century Ghosts was a fine assortment of tales, some scary and some not, that lingered in the mind long after they’d been read.
This makes his second novel, Horns, all the more disappointing.
Horns starts off promisingly as twenty-something Ignatius “Ig” Perrish wakes up with a bad hangover. It’s nearly a year to the day since Ig’s longtime girlfriend Merrin Williams was raped and murdered. The crime is unsolved, though nearly everyone seems to think Ig was the culprit and that his wealthy family’s influence let him walk. But Ig’s problems are worse than a morning-after headache – he’s sprouted horns from the crown of his head. That’s disconcerting enough, but things get unsettling when no one – not his erstwhile girlfriend Glenna, not the local doctor, not even his parents or brother – seems to notice the horns. But the horns to have an effect: they cause anyone who sees them to confess to Ig their darkest thoughts and desires, and to ask him for permission to act on them.
This undesired insight into people leads Ig to learn the identity of Merrin’s killer. Unfortunately this is where the book starts to fall apart, becoming a tangled mass of flashbacks that drain the story of its narrative momentum. It isn’t an especially long book, but large swaths of Horns still feel padded as the reader sees one evening’s events retold in three different perspectives, and while the differing views do add details to the story, they don’t add much tension. The climactic action comes across as almost an afterthought.
Moreover, Hill has peppered his book with odd details that almost make a reader wonder if it was originally intended to be satirical. The name “Merrin” should be familiar to fans of The Exorcist, and would you believe that Merrin had a sister named Regan? Really. The portrait of a demon as looking just like the fellow off the Underwood deviled ham cans, some very muddled theology – it’s clever at times, so clever it takes you out of the story, and none of it adds up to much at the end.
Which is a damn (no pun intended) shame, because those opening chapters are so creepy and promising, as Ig gets unwanted insight into and control over peoples’ lives. Yet Hill does very little with this concept, and indeed by the end of the story it’s almost forgotten.
Horns provides enough satisfaction at the time of reading to let one finish it, but the book becomes more and more disappointing afterward, as the reader thinks about what this book could have done, but didn’t.
Let’s hope that Hill can get back to the strong, sustained stories that made his first two books so enjoyable, and that Horns is just a misstep.