Book review

Horns (Joe Hill)

Alfred Kubin

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a book I’ve read. And I have been reading quite a bit, actually — mostly, the Orson Welles bio referenced below, which I read for so long I actually missed it when we parted company after 600 pages and one dunking in the bathtub — just not reporting out. But I will write (briefly) about this book, Horns, because I think if I don’t get it down quickly (I finished it the night before last), I probably won’t retain it. Which is not to say that this is not a well-written or interesting book, just that it’s slight and — with one exception — doesn’t really connect to particularly larger fields of inquiry that would fix its preoccupations more firmly in my mind.

That one exception isn’t even part of the book, really. It’s what Hill writes after the book and before the “bonus” short story included at the end. But first, a little context.

Horns is a horror/supernatural/popular fiction work about a nice guy to whom some horrific things occur, the most recent of which is that he has turned into a demon. The book then moves backward and forward to explain what has brought Iggy to this state (his full name is Ignatius Martin Perrish — IMP; he drives a Gremlin, btw). The funniest parts are in the beginning, where he slowly discovers that people tell him their inner-most wicked desires, asking his leave to pursue them. Their casual lack of any semblance of conscience in his presence as they matter-of-factly turn their censors off and admit to jarringly horrendous impulses is the book’s best conceit, I think. Overall, too, it’s a good read, not quite — for me at least — an over-heated page turner (sigh: what pleasure those are! I have recorded a couple such here; I should also mention one of my most favorite of these, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. What is better than that wonderful/awful feeling of closing in on the end of a quintessential Page Turner, deliciously anticipating the ending, dolefully dreading the end), but a respectable novel that kept my interest and did not distract me with poor writing, poor plotting, or — thank you, editorial team at HarperCollins — poor proofreading. I would imagine that Joe Hill deserves much of the praise on all those counts, including the last, since I don’t think anybody proofreads anymore. He strikes me as a pro, a craftsman who works honestly and hard, sweats a bit, to put together a good story. I don’t think it comes easily for him. But he tied up pretty much all his loose ends, conscientiously kept his pact with the reader to explain what needed explaining, and moved on.

I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. Far from it. I respect what Hill has done, particularly because he could, as Stephen King’s son, have taken a lot of lazy ways out. And he didn’t and he doesn’t.

So, about Horns, it’s got humor and devils and a moral core. The plot may be a bit tortured around the edges, or more precisely, muddled in the middle, and there might be a couple-three too many long-drawn-out gross-out battle scenes between variants of good and evil with some truly sick-making stuff laboriously detailed. (And snakes.) But it’s a good read, and the characters are suitably endearing — the ones intended to be so — and a few of the twists are genuinely surprising.

But now for the exceptional part, and this is why I think Hill’s a pro. He gives perhaps one of the best explanations I’ve ever read of the writing process, of where the writer stands with regard to his subject matter. He begins by noting that most writers

…don’t have anything like a single clear vision… Instead, the writer is a dude with a battered Star Wars lunchbox full of precious junk. He carries it with him everywhere he goes, and he can’t resist opening and occasionally taking his things out to look them over…

In story after story, the writer opens his lunchbox and takes out the mementos and sets them in a row and admires them in the light. He smells them (they smell like himself). He touches them. He studies them. He moves them around to observe them in different order. He puts some things away, takes other things out. Each variation is a new story. The writer, it turns out, is not peddling his grand philosophical insights after all. He is instead selling tickets to a private exhibition of personal fascinations and oddities.

I think that’s an extremely insightful, carefully thought-through articulation of what it is to be a writer.

And the story that followed, a variant on the Horns themes, wasn’t bad either.

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