Friday, 20 June 2014

Review: Horns

HILL, Joe, Horns, Gollancz/Orion Publishing Group/Hachette UK, London, 2010.

Octavo; paperback; 437pp. Wrappers and text block edges well-rubbed; spine creased. Good.

The novel distinguishes itself from the novella due to the fact that it springboards from more than one single event. Although, often, there may be only one apparent spur to action, the novel explores widely from its central events and encompasses thoughts on society, the human condition and other matters central to its main points of plot. A novel mostly has more than one theme to delve into: a short story has but one idea which it plays out; a novella takes the single concept and fleshes it out a little more fully than that.

Some time ago, I reviewed Joe Hill’s short story collection Twentieth Century Ghosts and gave it an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Since then I have read his other print offerings (not, as yet, his graphic collaborations, but I’ll get there), and I’ve come to the idea that Hill’s best work is contained within the “shorter” writing forms rather than the extended sandpit which the novel represents. This is not to say that he is a bad writer – far from it: his style and eloquence is truly masterful. I just feel that his comfort zone becomes somewhat breached in a longer format.

Heart-Shaped Box, Hill’s other excursion into the novel realm, had a great premise: an aging heavy metal rock star indulges his cash and whims by assembling a collection of morbidly-associated artefacts – a serial-killer’s snuff video is one item – and buys a ghost over the internet to add to the assemblage. It arrives in the eponymous box and mayhem ensues. While this is a good read, it feels like a novella that outstays its welcome: the one central idea is well-and-truly thrashed out by the end and a series of anti-climactic set pieces – excruciatingly tying up all the loose ends – lends a distinct sense that Hill had no idea how to end the tale. Like Tchaikovsky trying to find that right terminal chord. Going into Horns, I was desperately hoping that this would not be a repeat performance.

It is, therefore, with a mixture of pleasure and relief that I can report that this is not the case.

The story contained in Horns is, superficially, one of revenge. Ignatius Perrish wakes up after a particularly intense bender to discover that he has grown a pair of horns on his forehead. Although he can see them quite distinctly, other people somehow fail to fully acknowledge them and soon forget having seen them; their presence however, comes with an interesting side-effect. People suddenly begin to tell Ig their darkest desires and impulses and seek for him to grant them permission to act upon them, whether it’s gorging themselves on doughnuts or telling friends exactly – exactly – what they think of them. In time, Ig learns to control this effect, forcing people to do what – or nearly what – he wants them to do, and he discovers that he can learn everything there is to know about a person simply by touching them. As the horns grow, other powers manifest: fire heals him of any damage that he sustains; he begins to breathe smoke and flames; he can control snakes. In short he turns into the very personification of Satan.

The point of all this is a slow reveal. A year previous to the novel’s opening date, Ig’s girlfriend Merrin was sadistically raped and murdered (possibly not in that order) and Ig was arrested as the prime suspect. Released due to lack of evidence, the small town of Gideon in New England where the story is set, has firmly made up its mind that Ig is to blame and that time will tell. Ig’s famous family is torn between wanting to help and salvaging their public personae and they settle for him just keeping his head down and laying low. Thus rejected, Ig begins a self-destructive downward spiral which culminates in the fateful bender from which he awakens a devil incarnate.

Much of the first act of the story involves Ig working out how to use his new-found super-powers. Along the way he encounters the main players in his tragic zeitgeist – most of them pillars of the small-town community of Gideon – and learns how empty, dark and hollow his world actually is. Hill plays many of these set pieces for black laughs and is shrewd enough to not overplay the tactic: while occasionally funny these visions into the despair of small-town souls are truly bleak and horrifying.

After many shocking revelations regarding those he thought were on his side, Ig finally learns who is actually responsible for Merrin’s death. From here on in, the path to vengeance rolls forth and Ig sets his cloven hoof upon it. A set-back occurs when he discovers that his nemesis is somehow immune to his Hellish powers and justice is postponed until this hurdle can be overcome.

Along this desperate ride, there are flashbacks to earlier, less-well-informed days, when everything in Ig’s life was bright and cheerful. We learn how he met Merrin and how he became friends with Lee Torneau, the school outcast, after Lee saved him from drowning during a riverside daredevil stunt as a teenager. We see the childhood bullies who hassled Ig and later encounter them as the grown-up bullies who haven’t yet found better targets for their self-loathing and aggression. Throughout these scenes we gain a growing sense of Merrin and her relationship with Ig: Hill handles her development gracefully, never letting her climb fully up onto the pedestal where Ig obviously wants to put her, and in this way allows her reality to shine forth. The lovers’ bond strays sometimes uncomfortably close to the treacly side of things, but Hill never lets the relationship become maudlin.

As to the conclusion, things come to an end; unlike Heart-Shaped Box, the climax and denouement get to where they’re going and add a few unexpected twists en route. Satisfyingly, these don’t just leap out of a void, but are flagged at the book’s beginning and again during the body of the text so that, while still a surprise, they’re of the “oh yeah!” variety rather than the “what the...?” kind. In this way the book holds together as a crafted story rather than a train ride to an inevitable conclusion.

If I have beefs with this book, they’re small ones. Ig is the scion of a celebrity family and there’s just a touch of whining about the status that such a life can impose: I’m guessing that Hill is airing some personal issues here but, as the son of Stephen King, I guess he’s writing what he knows, and that’s what they always tell us to do. A bigger issue is the fact that Hill is a natural short story writer and, whereas there are things that you can do with a short story, they don’t work as well in a novel:

In a short story or novella, things are a little more emphasised, somewhat larger than life; techniques such as symbolism and metaphor are short-cuts to transmitting a message to the reader and their use is natural to the format. That this story is treading a veritable minefield of theological symbolism, it’s to Hill’s credit that he reins most of this in to a point where it doesn’t appear arch or contrived. Still, things slip through: references to (their Satanic Majesties) the Rolling Stones, the fact that the Perrish family are all trumpet players (horns, get it?), the fact that Ig’s vehicle of choice is a make of car entitled the Gremlin, are all sly winks which break the fourth wall far too often for comfort. The worst instance occurs late in the action when, after having set himself on fire to heal himself from a beating, Ig seeks clothing to cover his nakedness and finds discarded a long, straight black-leather coat (how convenient!), a single sock, and a lacy blue skirt. The first two articles are soon lost sight of; the blue dress, however, remains and becomes an extended and distracting pun on Shorty Long’s 1964 song “Devil With a Blue Dress On” for the remainder of the book.

My last criticism is the number of times that Ig gets beaten up. As in Heart-Shaped Box, Hill doesn’t mind putting his heroes through the wringer; however, the violence inflicted upon Ig by the end starts to become annoying: I seriously began to wonder when ‘Devil-Boy’ would start to man-up a little! While I know our protagonist is not supposed to be a 'warrior born', pages and pages of ‘pain exploding’ and ‘shocks blinding’ start to get more than a little old. If Horns feels bloated in places, these are the sections where some deft editorial work could have been employed. The violence has a slightly misogynistic quality too in that, while Ig and several other male characters get the snot beat out of them, Hill shies away at any revelation as to what actually happens to Merrin: I’m not saying that, as a reader, I needed to know every gory detail of her demise (and I believe the book is stronger for avoiding such a splatterpunk excursion) but there’s a qualifying effect on the violence if it’s implied that one target makes it worse than another. Many of Ig’s (apparently all female) snake companions, for example, get chopped in the crossfire with gleeful abandon, which (as an amateur herpetologist) I found far more distressing than the central character taking a boot to the face.

My final analysis then, is that this is a fantastic – and fantastically dark – novel from Joe Hill. Unlike Heart-Shaped Box, it hangs together better structurally and breaks free of the ‘novella masquerading as a novel’ state which plagued that earlier effort. It contains all of the wonderfully sensual turns of phrase and poetic language which I’ve come to love about Hill’s writing, and –like all of his efforts - defines new territory free and clear of the generation of horror writing from which he descends. I’ve read that he’s taken a sideways step into the world of graphic novels and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with there; for me though, another collection of short stories – the form that he’s definitely best at – would be favourite, but meanwhile this read gives a great insight into how he’s grown as a storyteller. More please!

Four tentacled horrors.

I have just discovered that the movie of this book is about to hit the cinemas! Apparently it stars Daniel Radcliffe as Ig Perrish (not convinced); but the screenplay has been written by Joe Hill (getting convinced). When it gets here, you can bet I'll be sharing my thoughts about it!