book review / books / Feminism / gender / review / speculative

Book Review: Horns by Joe Hill

Horns
Author – Joe Hill
Published – 2010

Horns isn’t a book I thought I’d read. I saw the ads for the movie when it came out in 2013 and was intrigued. However, several people told me it was about a rape and murder and so was a little put off, being aware that it might be something that wouldn’t sit well with me depending on how it was done. But then I happened to pick up a copy of the novel whilst in a discount book store and was intrigued enough by the blurb to buy it. Still a little dubious, I was interested to see how the rape and murder of a female character was handled and knew that this would effect my rating of the novel.

horns-by-joe-hill

The Blurb

From Goodreads – 

At first Ig thought the horns were a hallucination, the product of a mind damaged by rage and grief. He had spent the last year in a lonely, private purgatory, following the death of his beloved, Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances. A mental breakdown would have been the most natural thing in the world. But there was nothing natural about the horns, which were all too real.

Once the righteous Ig had enjoyed the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned musician and younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, he had security, wealth, and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more—he had Merrin and a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic.

But Merrin’s death damned all that. The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried. And he was never cleared. In the court of public opinion in Gideon, New Hampshire, Ig is and always will be guilty because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to make the investigation go away. Nothing Ig can do, nothing he can say, matters. Everyone, it seems, including God, has abandoned him. Everyone, that is, but the devil inside…

Now Ig is possessed of a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look – a macabre talent he intends to use to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It’s time for a little revenge… It’s time the devil had his due…

Review

3stars

Despite not being able to put it down a lot of the time, and on many levels enjoying this novel, I wasn’t able to give it more than 3 stars, though I went back and forth for a while on possibly going for 3.5.

The story finds protagonist Ignatius (Ig/Iggy) Perrish at a low point in his once blessed life. A year earlier his girlfriend was found raped and murdered and he was arrested as the lead suspect. A lack of evidence meant he was never charged, but that doesn’t stop all his friends, family and the wider community believing him guilty. A picture is built up of Ig, the outsider, arguably only made respectable with the love of his girlfriend, beloved town sweetheart Merrin Williams. The story begins around a year after Merrin’s death with Ig waking from a night he has forgotten, to find that he has grown horns. It slowly develops that with these horns come certain powers of knowledge and persuasion. As Ig comes to terms with this he realises that he can use the horns to find Merrin’s real killer and reap revenge.

The book jumps straight into the story, even though it takes a few pages to realise what’s going on – alongside Iggy as he too discovers his powers. It’s fantastically well paced and a compelling read, with the story set across five parts, told in the present and in flashbacks to pertinent points of the past.

Perhaps surprisingly, Merrin’s real killer is revealed fairly early on, the dark truth unable to escape the power of the horns. This revelation comes at the end of the first part, with the second part being a flashback to the time surrounding Iggy’s first meeting Merrin and their mutual friend, Lee – who saves Ig’s life as a teenager. Far from slowing the story down we are given an equally compelling story, that fleshes out all the characters involved and the circumstances of their friendships. This format occurs throughout, with the non-linear story building up to the final conclusions. The story is well structured, and despite knowing the identity of the killer, there are multiple mysteries going on. We start with who really killed Merrin? And what can Iggy’s horns do? through to who he can influence and to what extent? And moreover, what will he do with these powers? How Iggy got the horns and the circumstances of the night he cannot remember is a mystery that is not revealed until the very end of the book, putting everything into a final perspective.

Changing the viewpoint to the murderer in the fourth part of the book, was an excellent way to try to better understand what had happened and use both his and Iggy’s (and Iggy’s brother, Terry’s) perspectives to form a better picture of what really happened the night that Merrin was raped and murdered.

The Devil as the Hero

Iggy is the anti-hero of this story. Although he has evil thoughts and wants to carry out evil actions, it’s all from a place of frustration and revenge that on some level is identifiable to the readers. What would you do, how would you feel, if you were accused of a heinous crime that you didn’t commit but that everyone believed you had. What would you do if you were given the power to do something about it? On this level, it is easy to identify with Iggy – revenge is a powerful and universal emotion.

There is clearly a strong theological element to the story that I might not have connected with. Whether this is because I am not Christian, or because Christianity (on some social and cultural levels) is not played out quite the same in the UK as in the US, I am unsure. What is clear is that the devil is the hero of this story, a guy that does bad things for the most honourable of reasons. And it’s the devil versus God, who Iggy feels abandoned Merrin allowing her to be raped and murdered. There’s an interesting moment where Ig muses on Women as creator rather than God, and that God has been long waging a war against the devil and women (or vice versa) as enemies of his power – an interesting notion of which I approve! As part of that, we discover that Ig’s new powers do not work against people protected by God – those wearing crosses or in churches for example. At first this felt too simple to me and I had hoped for something more complex, but then it becomes stronger within the context of the larger focus on theology.

Something that is interesting and is arguably not fully resolved, is the revelation towards the end of how Iggy was saved as a teenager – and whether this shows him as already set on the path of the devil, who seems a permanent resident of Iggy’s home town.

The Life and Death of Merrin Williams

The thing that I was most wary of before reading this, was how the rape and murder of the primary female character, Merrin Williams would be presented. I worried that Merrin’s rape and murder would be just the catalyst for the story and potentially render her, and her trauma, as nothing more than a refrigerated prop. As such, I was relieved to find, that at least as a character, she was well fleshed out. This is achieved through the flashbacks and from the variety of perspectives – so although we never really hear Merrin’s voice, we learn a lot about her and various circumstances (including her rape and murder – which is well handled) through the points of view of at least three characters. Although the lack of her voice is regrettable, she at least comes across as a character with her own agency as a result of the cross purposes of the differing viewpoints and the way they say Merrin.

That said, a revelation about Merrin’s health towards the end of the story, and the fact that she went on record as having wanted to die, feels like a free pass on her rape and murder. I was really torn by this – I found myself feeling relieved that at least Merrin didn’t have to suffer through a terrible breakdown of her health, and then thought – What the hell am I thinking!??! The framing had made me consider for a moment whether her rape and murder was a better alternative to her failing health. And on some level this is what Iggy feels – potentially that her rape and murder was God saving her from a “worse” fate… What the actual hell? The answer is of course, no it was not. But the story isn’t framed that way and it feels like that is exactly what the author is trying to do – to cushion the blow of her rape and murder by saying it’s ok as she was going to have a horrid and terrible death anyway. This did not sit well with me.

Merrin isn’t the only female character – other than family members and locals – there is also Glenna, Ig’s new girlfriend (after a fashion). Despite a delinquent past and her slobbish ways, she is strangely likeable and comes across as quite real and endearing – someone the reader can root for towards the end. She is also the only character that Ig comes across who doesn’t have horrific and/or life changing dark secrets (affairs, murderous thoughts, deep hatred for their kin, etc). Iggy even recognises this in her and wants to help make her life better and repay the way he has treated her in the past, and the way she has been treated by other men. So, again, I find it odd that the author chose to play down Merrin’s rape and murder with the introduction of her health issues and the potential theological reasoning behind it. Especially as her health issue comes across as nothing more than a way to explain that when she decided to breakup with Iggy (which we discover part way through) she didn’t really want to but was being selfless. Perhaps Hill could have found a way to justify the breakup and Merrin’s feelings in a way that wouldn’t have gutted her doubly meaningless death.

 

Overall, this is an interesting and compelling read and I enjoyed it whilst reading it. There is a sort of Donnie Darko element to this story, in the mixing of reality and fantasy/theology. However, there were aspects that let it down for me towards the end. The treatment of Merrin as noted above and the ending itself, which is surprisingly happy in a way. Early in the story we know that Ig isn’t planning this with any way out for himself, like the power of the horns, it is all consuming and the revenge is what matters even over his own life. And though his fate is inescapable, we still end up with a nicely resolved and arguably upbeat ending. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is rather good and it’s nice to have things tied up, however it feels a little at odds with the theme of the book and I can’t help but wonder about a darker ending with no happy ever afters. After all Ig himself noted –

“It goes against the American storytelling grain to have someone in a situation he can’t get out of, but I think this is very usual in life.”

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