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Horns by Joe HillReview: Horns by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2011)

Check me out being all topical! Seeing as the big-screen adaptation of Horns starring Harry ‘Daniel Radcliffe’ Potter is released here this weekend – Halloween no less – I thought I’d best get the novel read so I could act all ‘the book is so much better’ on exiting the auditorium. Joe Hill’s horror debut, Heart-Shaped Box, took bookstores by storm ┬ámany moons ago and I was quietly impressed though not overwhelmed. He was a fresh, original voice in a slightly tired genre but wasn’t about to set the world on fire in my opinion. So how does Horns stack up? Was it worthy of the dollars the studio must have parted with? Read on…

Those of you who have read the blurb or seen the trailers will already be familiar with the central conceit of Horns; Ignatius Parrish awakes after a particularly drunken evening to a rude surprise. It seems he has sprouted a pair of horns from his head. Not just any old horns, proper devil horns. Actual horns. In his head. After initially dismissing them as the hallucinogenic detritus of an unusually toxic hangover he goes about his day. But of course, they’re real. And Ig’s problems are just beginning. The horns are visible to others but they tend to seem somewhat nonplussed by them and more concerned with confiding in Ig their darkest, vilest desires and most violent fantasies. And Ig, with a simple “Go for it” or “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” can set them on the path to damnation or salvation.

Now so far this is what I was expecting and settled back for a horror-comedic cavalcade of unsuspecting souls being tempted to their doom by demonic Ig. Bzzt, wrong. Horns is so much more than the pulpy joyride I was expecting and instead ventures far darker and meatier territory than I could have hoped for. It transpires that Ig is a man with his own demons stalking him. Just a year prior to the story’s opening his girlfriend, Merrin, was found raped and murdered following a loud and public break-up between the two of them. Needless to say Ig was the main suspect but also was not to blame. Unfortunately for him his own memory of the evening is an alcoholic haze and any evidence which could have either fingered him or cleared his name went up in smoke along with the rest of the locker, a cruel and suspicious twist of fate. Since that date he has lived in hell, guilty in the eyes of all around him and unable to even begin to find Merrin’s killer.

Now however, everyone who crosses his path seems to be revealing their innermost secrets. Skeletons are bounding out of closets and Ig is homing in on his nemesis. But those horns are getting hotter and the real Hell seems to be creeping ever closer.

Joe Hill manages to totally confound expectations by turning Horns into a seriously dark psychological-cum-theological thriller, a horrific tale of betrayal, anguish and revenge which seems increasingly biblical with every page turn. By the time the climax rolls around you swear you can feel the flames lapping at your feet, rooting for Ig every step of the way while becoming all too aware of the demon he is becoming. The structure of the book lends it a near-perfect sense of pace. With every encounter a little more of the fateful evening’s details are coloured in, each reveal becoming more painful and poignant, until the flood becomes almost too much. The fire-and-brimstone crescendo hits with exactly the right mix of tragedy and vengeance, providing an endpoint to the tale which satisfies without pandering to the reader’s expectations.

By the time you read this review you may have already caught the movie but don’t let that put you off. Horns is a twisted, vile little read and I mean that in the best possible way. Its darkness seeps through your skin and you’ll feel your own little horns sprouting before long. If that’s not a glowing recommendation I’m not sure what is.

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