The Designer’s Drugs: Joe Hill – Horns

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Joe Hill – Horns

Anno: 2010

This is a case of an author being held hostage by his own brilliance. Joe Hill’s debut novel, Heart Shaped Box, hit the book world like a ton of bricks, and his earlier collection of short stories, titled 20th Century Ghosts, showed a dazzling spectrum of nuance and terror. Expectations ran high for his follow-up novel, which tells the tale of a man turned devil out to avenge the death of his girlfriend. And while Horns begins and ends with a rather straightforward, if supernatural, premise of injustice and retribution, Hill’s talents give the story vitality far beyond the expected.

But first, the drawback. It’s clear that Hill fully intended this, but his usage of diabolical imagery and references often ranges from heavy-handed to outright corny. When devil-print underwear becomes a factor in a trailer brawl, it raised an eyebrow. When “Sympathy for the Devil” was mentioned, it rolled my eyes. But when Ignatius Perrish tracked down his girlfriend’s father wearing only an overcoat and a blue skirt and reintroduced himself as a “devil in a blue dress,” I groaned at the book.

Yet the plays on words do work both ways. The titular horns not only refer to the two pointy things growing from Ig’s head but also to the instruments his father and brother played to make their living. The recurring use of cherry also has multiple meanings, including virginity, explosives, and a possible fruit from Eden’s Tree of Knowledge. Ties are also important, both as articles of clothing and implements of bondage. While Hill must have been aware of his campy turns of devil phrase, his cleverness wasn’t limited to them alone.

In fact, much of what makes Horns so compelling is beyond the demonic. What this story is really about is the growing and fracturing relationships between three friends. Ig’s naïve outlook runs into direct contrast with that of his best friend Lee, who is guarded and worldly. Ig’s initial idolization of his new friend soon changes into genteel competition over the affections of Merrin, who develops a deep relationship with both. As much of the story is told in flashbacks, the point of Horns becomes not what happened between then and now, but how and why.

Despite a superficial adherence to theme, Joe Hill’s sophomore novel has firmly established him as a writer who can bury depth within the conventional. He seems primed to become the next big voice in horror, and there’s nothing in Horns to disprove that.

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