Horns is Joe Hill’s best book to date, and you sure as shit can count me as a fan of both his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, and his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box. But for all the powerful storytelling muscle on display in Horns, he still suffers from some of the same problem that plagues Heart-Shaped Box and hell, most of his father’s work: an inability to go full-dark on a story that no-shit begs to go there (which I suppose is a better problem to have in common with Stephen King than, you know, an inability to keep your fucking books under a billion pages).
The story is about a privileged young man named Ig Perrish who wakes up to find that he has two horns growing out of his head. Stranger than that, when he comes into contact with others, they don’t question his new deformity, they just share their darkest impulses with him, asking Ig whether or not they should act on said impulse (in an especially hilarious early scene, his doctor asks if he wants to do oxycontin with him). Also, when he touches that person, he instantly knows their darkest secrets. This new talent soon leads to Ig discovering who murdered his fiancee a year previous, and revenge is set in motion.
That idea alone – the devil made flesh – and its execution is enough for me to recommend the book right there, but Hill has a much more complex story in mind that involves numerous flashbacks and some perspective changes that enrich and complicate the story in masterful ways. The childhood shit in this book is on par with Stephen King’s It in its evocation of adolescence and attention to detail – and that’s some high fucking praise indeed, dear reader. Also, Hill’s knack for dialogue and dark humor is something to be-fucking-hold.
But what initially hit me about all of Hill’s work is that he gets right to the conflict toot-fucking-sweet and never lets the pace flag. It astounded me how quickly we got into the haunting of Judas Coyne in Heart-Shaped Box (Hill also establishes that Horns is in the same world as Box in a sly way at one point in the novel) and how beautifully he kept twisting the idea, and with Horns Ig Perrish has horns no-shit immediately.
But also like Heart-Shaped Box, Hill shies away from real, deserved consequences in the story’s climax. Hell, in both Box and Horns there’s a major character that looks to be dead for a few pages, then, in a colossal puss-out, turns out not to be. It’s especially frustrating in Horns, which feels much darker than – but nowhere near as genuinely scary as – Heart-Shaped Box. Puss-out aside, there’s a heartbreaking moment pre-climax (sounds vaguely dirty) involving a letter that fucking rocked me emotionally.
So if you’re up for a fast but expertly told story that in the end flinches in ways that my favorite horror writer, Jack Ketchum, never would (unfair to name-drop the master, but seriously: read Ketchum), definitely check out Horns toot-fucking-sweet. Shit, not to belabor the fucking point, but that sounds like a proper tagline for all of my favorite Stephen King novels.