I met Chris Farnell on a trip to the British Library for a tweet up and jaunt around the "Out of this World" exhibition. He is the author of Mark II and can be followed on Twitter.
He agreed to do a review of Horns by Joe Hill (and saved me late in the game, so that I could have all 32 guest slots filled! Thanks Chris!)
Okay, before starting this review properly, I need to address the elephant in the room. Joe Hill is the son of a popular horror novelist who we will call ******* ****. To review this book purely in terms of how it compares to ******* **** would be a disservice to both writers, and this reviewer is above such obvious comparisons. That the book shares similar attitudes to horror, religious themes, family and the darker side of human nature is completely by the by. And so this review will not, for instance, say that this book bears comparison to ******* ****’s earlier classics, and that if you liked those you’ll really enjoy this. Whether or not it’s true (it is) I’m not going to say it, because that would be plain lazy.
We all clear on that? Good. Then I’ll begin.
Horns is a lot of things, it’s a story about grief, a religious parable, and weird sort of superhero story. The religious aspects of the story address the old problem, “If God exists and he loves us, why do horrible, horrible things keep happening to nice people who don’t deserve it?” It’s a question that’s asked a bunch of different ways throughout the book, and God never turns up in person to answer it. Even Satan never really shows his hand here- there’s just Ignatius, with horns and his awesome name.
But the horns aren’t just a barrier to well-fitting hats and a decent haircut. Whenever Ignatius is in the presence of another person, that person is overwhelmed by the need to confess all their sins- both the ones they’ve committed, and the ones they want to commit. What’s more, on confessing a sin they want to commit, people seek Ignatius’s approval, and if he grants them permission, they’ll go right ahead to do it. Like the best monsters/superheroes, the horns’ powers have strict limitations- mainly, that Ig can’t command people to do anything that they do not want to do.
This is where the superhero aspects of the story come in. Ig is a character who has had terrible things happen to him, and his given powers that allow him to do a huge amount of evil, but he resists that and turns the powers to a better purpose.
It’s a book that lives up to its horror label. There are some genuinely scary and disgusting descriptions- including one scene that caused me to stop reading for a while because I didn’t want to throw up on the coach.
It’s not a book without flaws, it has the Christopher Nolan-esque quality of being a story about men motivated by the rape and murder of a woman. That said, Ig’s girlfriend Merrin is a character who still manages to have a life of her own, and the writer is all too happy to show us the parallels between Ig’s idealised view of the woman he loves and the delusional stories Merrin’s rapist tells himself about her.
The thing that most surprised me about this book is that it’s actually incredibly optimistic about people. In the first chapter of the book Ig comes across as Alcoholic, Despondent 90’s Anti-Hero version 3, but as his story, and his back story unfold, you discover this is a character driven by a powerful need to be and do good. Likewise, his power is custom built to show you the very ugliest sides of human nature (How confident are you that you want to hear with complete honesty what your parents, or your best friend or your lover thinks of you?) but the story shows that there is so much more to us than our darkest fears and desires.