Joe Hill’s second novel Horns is a lot like Slipknot’s latest album .5: The Gray Chapter. Both are hilariously dark—almost childishly, really—yet both are also a good deal of fun. Both also take their own brutality a bit too far at points, making for moments that induce cringe instead of laughter. The thing is, I’m not sure Horns is trying to be a dark comedy. I read it as one, but only because to read it as anything else but would be…unpleasant.
Our story starts with Ignatius “Ig” Perrish waking up with a massive hangover and much of the previous night forgotten. He recalls doing something bad, and he knows it involved the spot where his ex-girlfriend was murdered, but the rest of the details reside in the haze of being black-out drunk. With a pounding headache, he looks at himself in the mirror and sees horns growing out of his head.
Horns presents Ig with two mysteries to solve: Who killed Merrin Williams and why does he have horns growing out of his skull?
But Horns isn’t a mystery novel, at least not in conventional sense. There’s too much fantasy going on, so the clues present are more foreshadowing than actual clues. It also doesn’t help that Merrin’s death is figured out somewhere near the halfway mark of the novel, and this marks a turn from Ig as detective to Ig as a seeker of revenge.
Ig himself is a fun character, though he is very much an antihero. He’s a miserable cynic, a bit of a misanthrope, an alcoholic, and on the whole, rather tragic. Though he was never formally found guilty of Merrin’s death, everyone around him thinks he committed the crime. He’s treated poorly and with scorn, and that only amplifies all of his negative qualities.
He’s really the perfect candidate for a set of devil horns that grant him certain dark powers.
The biggest and most used power Ig’s horns grant him is one of influence. He sees people, and they begin confessing their darkest thoughts and acts/crimes and then ask him if they can continue committing said acts. Ig is a terrible character, and he has the ability to bring out the terrible character in everyone around him.
The whole thing is quite clever, and it’s also really entertaining. A doctor asks him if he can snort some Oxy before going back to work. A priest asks him if he can continue sleeping around with someone’s wife. An angry receptionist asks him if she can call someone’s screaming child a terrible monster bitch.
But the power itself is completely treated as a negative. Ig is confused and horrified by those around him, and his horns seem impossible to control. Like it or not, Ig gets to hear everything everyone thinks, and that includes all of the hatred directed towards him.
Things get messy, and honestly kind of heartbreaking, when Ig runs into his parents and older brother.
In a way, Horns is an unpleasant novel from start to finish. It’s depressing and cruel, and Ig spends most of it confused and beaten. Yet its dark qualities are so extreme that it’s mostly funny and entertaining.
The problem is when Horns takes its darkness too far. Ig is flawed human, but he’s someone we can sympathize with. The “villain” of the novel, however, is an absolute psychopath, and when Horns takes an abrupt break to focus on him, I stopped having fun.
To be sure, I appreciate a good psychopath. It’s hard to write a character with a completely alien set of morals, but our villain comes off as trying too hard at points, and his sections are completely unnecessary. The book only switches to his perspective just as Ig finds himself in mortal danger, so it feels like a cheap way to make us wait.
For example, we know that the villain raped and murdered Merrin, so there’s no reason to see the crime from start to finish from his point of view. Was it good writing? Sure. It made my skin crawl. But it also was not necessary. It felt like needless padding.
There’s also a lengthy section near the beginning of Horns that shows Ig as a child, interacting with his friends and meeting Merrin for the first time. This section ultimately proves to be important, but it goes on too long and sure isn’t as interesting as Ig’s present adulthood. I spent most of it waiting for it to be over so I could see why Ig was being followed by hordes of snakes.
With Ig turning into a literal devil, religion takes the thematic center stage. Horns isn’t a kind novel towards religion, and there’s a lengthy scene where Ig gives a sermon to a congregation of snakes, decrying God and praising Satan for loving humans in a more realistic way. It’s a good scene, but it’s also a bit too on-the-nose. And while religion, God, and the devil are thrown around quite often throughout the novel, they aren’t used all that well. Horns doesn’t have anything to truly say on the subject, but it’s fine with using the subject matter for plot purposes and imagery.
Given the high levels of fantasy and general weirdness of the novel, I wasn’t sure how Horns would actually end. Thankfully, the ending is satisfying, if not slightly strange and hard to follow. Time and reality begin to distort, and there might be a time paradox shoved in there somewhere. It’s hard to tell. Still, I enjoyed Ig’s final moments.
Horns isn’t a great novel, but it is a good novel. When it’s focusing its attention on Ig and his strange, satanic powers, it’s a blast that moves along on a nice pace. However, when the novel shifts its focus, it begins to drag, and there are long parts that both feel unnecessary and aren’t fun to read.
I think Joe Hill would have done better to write Horns as a lengthy novella or a short novel, but there’s still enough here for me to recommend it. It’s far from perfect, but oh well. I had fun.