Horns

NOTE: I had a terrible cough and cold this week and unfortunately had to write this column while under the influence of cough medicine with codeine. As a result it's more rambling and disjointed than I'd like, but deadlines wait for no one, sick or well so I finally had to go ahead and publish.

My youngest son won an advance review copy of Joe Hill's newest book Horns. He was nice enough to lend it to me after I spent a lot of time sighing and giving him the sad eyes. I loved Joe's previous novel Heart Shaped Box and thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection 21st Century Ghosts so I had very high expectations for the new book, which were mostly met.

Like Heart Shaped Box, Horns is a horror story that explores the atrocities man commits against man, with a strong paranormal element. Ig, the protagonist, wakes up after a big drunk to discover a set of horns sticking out of his forehead. They're not very big but they're pretty powerful, casting a spell on anyone who sees them and allowing him to discover all sorts of awful things about anyone he runs into, including his own family. Either they are compelled to tell him terrible things they've thought and done or when he touches them he sees the truth (although of course he only sees the bad truth. He never seems to see them giving a few bucks to someone in need, carrying a stranger's groceries or any of the other tiny kindnesses we all engage in.)

It doesn't take long before Ig discovers something so shocking and terrible he must act. He cannot go back to what he has been doing, which is drifting through the life doing little since his beloved girlfriend Merrin was murdered and raped a year ago. Now that he knows more about the crime, which his community believes he committed, he must seek vengeance.

Frankly I hate this trope. It's overdone and it's annoying. There are plenty of reasons people are motivated to make a drastic change in their lives or do the things they've been afraid to do but if you watch a certain kind of action film or read enough of the wrong kind of comic books you'll end up thinking that the death (and often rape) of a girlfriend or wife is the only force in the world. (Bonus motivation if young children are also murdered.)

If you think I'm nuts, just think about the character The Punisher, who becomes a superhero after a terrible murder. The movie Death Wish is another example, starring Charles Bronson as a vigilante driven by the murder of his wife. It's the reason Patrick Jayne on the Mentalist stopped being a conman and started working with the law; because his wife and child were murdered by Red John and he wants to be there when Red John is captured so he can kill the killer. Brandon Lee's The Crow features a dead fiancée and many Jean Claude Van Damme movies are revenge driven including In Hell, Double Impact and Inferno. I've started to watch movies where families, meaning wives and children, are blown up or shot in the first few minutes of the story, leading me to change the channel. Once you notice this plot point you'll see it everywhere. You'll cringe when you see a happy couple declare their love for each other at the beginning of a film because it means one of them is about to die.

In case it's not clear; here are a few reasons I despise this trope. It's cheap, it's easy, it's careless, it’s sloppy writing and it’s usually a copout – something chosen by a beginning or rushed writer because it kind of works and they don't have to come up with something original. I was quite disappointed when I read the cover of Horns and realized the book was being touted as another testosterone and revenge driven story. Ugh. Maybe I could torture myself by watching reruns of Robin Hood on BBC America instead. Then at least I might get a nap out of my "entertainment" experience.

My annoyance with the revenge theme interfered with my enjoyment of the book. I laughed out loud, I worried, I cringed, I cried, but part of me was held back, disappointed in the author's initial choice. But then I realized what a complicated web Mr. Hill had woven when he wrote this story and I decided I was wrong. I had forgotten that a good writer can take the most clichéd of material and turn it into something new and exciting.

Horns is an intricate read that left me with a lot on my mind, questions, concerns, confusion, etc. (The confusion is mostly because I don't think I quite got some of the more supernatural stuff that was going on, which I thought could be interpreted a couple of different ways.) I've seen a tagline for Horns - "the devil is in the details" – most likely because Ig appears to be turning into a devil of some sort, with the horns just the first change in his appearance. Despite the strong demonic theme and the horror genre, I felt this book is ultimately about redemption, not vengeance, and that perhaps the tagline is right. When we get bogged down in details, especially when we only see the bad side of things, we end up in a terrible place, but when we can concentrate on the bigger picture and ignore petty problems we’re much happier. Obviously I'm talking about petty problems like hitting five red lights in a row or missing your train, not being framed for the murder and rape of your beloved girlfriend.

But enough philosophy – if you’re looking for a compelling horror story that might just break your heart, Horns is your book. It's also very funny in places, as all good horror is. It gets a strong recommend from me.

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