Horns by Joe Hill. William Morrow Publishers, 2010. 370 pages.
Ignatius William Perrish (“Iggy” to his friends) awoke one morning to find that, in addition to a headache, he had a very tangible set of horns sprouting from his forehead. Alarmed by his new acquisitions, Iggy takes himself to his family doctor’s office where he makes an alarming discovery. When other people (the receptionist, his current girl friend, etc.) focus on the horns, they not only have an uncontrollable desire to confess their secret sins, they ask for advice and assurance. Should they push their Alzheimer’s-striken mother down the basement steps? Should they continue embezzling funds? Is it time to break off a sleazy affair with a neighbor’s wife? Also, as soon as Iggy becomes distressed by the shocking sins of the people he meets and turns away in horror, the sinners forget what they have just confessed. In fact, they forget Iggy was ever there.
What follows is a nightmarish series of encounters in which Iggy visits those near and dear to him: his mother, his father, his grandmother and his celebrity brother. Poor Iggy learns that most of his family harbors an intense dislike for him. His mother is ashamed of him and is reluctant to attend social events where people know she is Iggy’s mother. His father hopes that he will move out and his grandmother considers him a loathsome pervert. Stunned by this information, Iggy reluctantly confronts his brother Terry, dreading to hear that even the person he admires most in the world probably despises him too.
By this point in Horns, the reader suspects that Iggy is suppressing a few dark secrets of his own; for example, he is a murder suspect. A year has lapsed since Merrin Williams, Iggy’s girlfriend, was raped and murdered on the eve of their departure for college. Merrin’s body is found in a favorite local hangout for courting couples — an abandoned foundry. Iggy is a primary suspect, but the evidence against his is circumstantial; he is never charged with the crime. However, it soon becomes evident that everyone, including Father Mould, the local Catholic priest (who has some pretty loathsome confessions of his own), and Iggy’s family thinks he is guilty. When Iggy finally reveals his new horns to his brother, he braces himself to hear yet another confession of hidden enmity. Instead, Terry reveals that he knows that his brother is innocent; but has failed to give evidence that would clear Iggy’s name because certain details of the crime would destroy Terry’s career (he is a popular TV personality).
Now, admittedly, a novel about a protagonist who has a set of horns on his head is a little bizarre, but this fact is rendered irrelevant by what follows: Horns contains two wildly divergent themes: (1) a deeply moving and poignant love story (Iggy and Merrin) and (2) a dark meditation on the nature of Good and Evil (God and the Devil). Although the novel is essentially a story about a group of teenagers in a small New Hampshire town, it gradually morphs into a morality tale that poses a number of disturbing questions. Is the majority of mankind essentially evil? In our secret hearts, are we all more comfortable with Satan than with God? Do we all nurse bitter resentments, anger and lust even as he communicate with our friends and family?
In addition to confirming Iggy’s innocence, Terry reveals the identity of the real murderer — Lee Tourneau, an enigmatic, handsome young man who just happens to be Iggy’s “best friend.” Now, in the aftermath of Merrin’s death, Iggy learns that Lee’s friendship is a carefully contrived mask to hide Lee’s profound envy and hatred for everyone who is blessed with comfortable lives, material goods and family ties.
It is especially interesting that the only character in Horns who is immune to the strange power of Iggy’s horns is Lee Tourneau. Raised in poverty by parents who are incapable of affection, Tourneau structures an existence designed to “get even” with his privileged peers — all the people he despises for real or imagined slights. When Lee launches a kind of secret war of deceit and betrayal on all of his alleged friends, Iggy and Merrin are fated to suffer the most.
Horns becomes a disturbing study of guilt, envy and suffering. At times, Lee Tourneau’s bitter envy resembles other infamous masters of deceit: Iago, who hated Othello because the Moor’s life had a beauty “that makes me ugly.” Then, there is Claggart’s hatred of Melville’s Billy Budd. Lee burns with a rage to destroy both Iggy and Merrin, simply because they exist.
Joe Hill is definitely his father’s (Stephen King) son. Horns, like his previous bestseller, The Heart-shaped Box, is filled with passages and imagery that causes the reader’s skin to prickle. Especially memorable are a series of scenes in the abandoned foundry where Iggy hides while he attempts to develop a way to defend himself against Tourneau.
As Iggy broods on the injustice of his situation, he begins to change, acquiring all of the traditional trappings of a demon. He discovers that he can mimic the voices of others and has the power to summons them to his hideout. Eventually, he notices that he has attracted visitors — hundreds (possibly thousands) of snakes gather around Iggy like adoring disciples.
There is, of course, a final conflict and it has dark grandeur which needs to be read. Consequently, this review will not steal any of Joe Hill’s thunder but merely note that the author does a masterful job of orchestrating an ending filled with drama, thunder and a strange kind of cosmic justice.