Ignatius Perrish wakes up one morning to find that he is starting to grow horns. Although other people notice this development, they don’t care — they’re more interested in telling Ig their darkest desires, pending his approval. All Ig has to do is give them permission, and they give into their darkest desires, everything from leaving their wives to disciplining their children to simply indulging their appetites and pigging out on donuts. It’s a good moral set-up, but then Ig finds out that his murdered fiancé was not the victim of a random attack, but killed by someone very close to him — by which time Ig has found a pitchfork and started preaching to the snakes that are following him around.
It’s a good tale written by Joe Hill, one of my favourite writers and a relatively new face on the horror scene who has previously written a decent first book called Heart-Shaped Box (about an ex-rocker who buys a ghost on the internet) and a book of short stories which contains one of my favourites of all time, Pop Art. He is also the author of the comic series Locke & Key, which is one of the best plotted and illustrated comics on the market today (buy them in hardback, it’s worth it, since they’ll undergo multiple readings).
Horns is very thrilling reading, and the content is not for the faint of heart. It’s very well written technically, and plotted almost to perfection. Most of the action is happening thematically, however. The moral situations and implications of the characters’ actions are discussed very much in the fore, and the theme Hill is most interested in exploring is that of suffering, especially in relation to theism.
Hill seems to be uncomfortable conceiving a universe containing both suffering and a loving God. How could a God who loves us create us with the capacity to suffer, and allow such terrible things to happen?
Which is where the theme starts to show signs of stress. It’s hard not to come across as metaphysically selective for a horror writer to, on behalf of his readers, acknowledge objective evil, and to then demand disbelief in objective good. It really starts to fracture when Hill’s storyline resolves and it becomes apparent to the reader (although the author seems to willfully turn away from this conclusion) that had the main character not suffered in the way he had, then he would never have found truth, closure, and a way out of his personal spiral of pain and purgatory.
Suffering is the tool that Hill uses in his story to redeem his main character, and it’s also what he uses to try to pound nails into an accusedly indifferent God, and it does feel hollow and disingenuous.
However, it’s a ripping yarn, and it’s very few book these days that even attempts a dialogue on this level, and it’s all the more admirable for that.