Sunday, 4 July 2010

Book review: "Horns," by Joe Hill

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

"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."

Joe Hill's book, "Horns," invokes sympathy for the devil. In his recent past Ig Perrish was a happy young man, with a beautiful girlfriend whom he met at a local church. He was due to go to London to start his dream job. Then his girlfriend dies tragically and violently the night before he is due to go away, and Ig is the main suspect. The case against him collapses, but so has his happiness, and Ig is left with a joyless and directionless life.

Then Ig wakes with the titular horns and he discovers a new talent: people start to confess their deepest, darkest desires to him. The emphasis here is on the darkness; these are things that you don't even like to admit to yourself. He also finds that he can influence people to act upon these desires. Ig is disturbed to discover what his family, friends and acquaintances think of him and, even more significantly, he discovers what really happened on the night his girlfriend was killed. He then starts to direct his new talents towards revenge.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and there are similarities in their writing. If you enjoy Stephen King, you will probably enjoy Joe Hill as well. They share a robust and direct writing style; their prose is functional rather than flowery. However, I have been about 100 pages into a Stephen King book before now - 100 very enjoyable pages - before realising that actually nothing much has happened. This is not Joe Hill's style; he is more a mastery of brevity and, as the opening extract demonstrates, he jumps straight into the story.

Joe Hill, like his father, is aware of the darkness within the heart of man. His characters are deeply flawed and often quite unsympathetic. In "Horns," as in "Heart-shaped Box" (his first novel), I found the female characters more likeable than the male. However, this comes with a huge caveat; his female characters, though more sympathetic, are often victims of abuse and/or their own self-hatred.

I'm becoming aware that I am not exactly selling this book, and I'm probably making it sound heavier than it is. Yes, there is a streak of morality in Joe Hill's writing, but there is also a pleasing ambiguity between good and bad, human and demon. He has a nice line in black humour that lurks in the dark shadows of his writing. Particularly in "Heart-shaped Box," which I probably enjoyed even more than "Horns," Joe Hill's imagery provides some startlingly vivid, creepy, details, and his characters are memorable and well-defined.

I also noticed on IMBD that a film of "Heart-shaped Box" is in development. If the film gets made - and I hope it does - I would be interested to see who is cast, and how Hollywood treats Joe Hill's novel.

I read "Heart-shaped Box" because I was intrigued to read a book by Stephen King's son. Now I read his books because they are by Joe Hill.

By the way, Alicia and anyone else who is scared of snakes. "Horns" is probably one you should avoid.

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