I had huge expectations for this. Not, as many will automatically think, because he’s Stephen King’s son; I’ve never understood why we insist on judging people by the actions or talents of their relatives. I had huge expectations for this because I absolutely loved his previous work: Heart-Shaped Box kept me on the edge of my seat (so to speak) throughout the entire narrative and his short story Pop Art is one of the most poignant pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. So when Horns came out, I knew that I would eventually get round to reading it. Does it match up? Oh yes, definitely.
The story follows Ignatius Perrish, aka Ig, a young man grieving after the murder of his girlfriend, Merrin, a year before. Unfortunately, popular opinion thinks that he did it, despite the fact that the evidence was never conclusive. One morning, after getting spectacularly drunk, he wakes up to find that he’s grown horns. If that’s not weird enough, no-one seems to find it odd or scary; instead, the horns seem to make people confess their deepest, darkest secrets and desires, that they would normally not do to keep face. With it, Ig decides to find out who actually killed his girlfriend. Actually, that might be slightly misleading. Ig actually finds out who the killer is about 1/5 of the way through. The rest is spent piecing together what happened in the days leading up to the murder through the perspectives of the people involved. This is where I think the book excels. In his investigations, Ig comes to know things about the people that he thought he knew well that completely changes his opinion of them. In the majority of cases, it makes for quite chilling reading, generally involving people he thought cared about him secretly resenting and despising him. In other cases, it’s more pitiful: a woman rendered so miserable by the taunts of others that she’s considered suicide, a man consumed by guilt over something he thinks he should have stopped amongst others. It’s a deeply uncomfortable look at how people would like to act and how those without clearer moral compasses act on those impulses.
One of the themes which turns up in the course of the book is religion: specifically the effect of ‘sinful’ behaviour on others and the indifference of God to human plight. I found the position taken on them rather surprising, although in a pleasant way. Regarding ‘sin’, Hill seemed to draw a line between two different types of sin: the kind that doesn’t affect anyone but the sinner and can be beneficial in the long run, and the kind that affects many people in a seriously negative way. The latter is easy to get examples of, Merrin’s rape and murder being the most obvious. The former is a little more difficult to explain: one example is when Ig gets a policeman to follow his urge to give his ostensibly homophobic partner a blow-job; when we see them later in the book, they’re now partners in both a professional and romantic sense. Many others involved leaving dead-end jobs and relationships which wouldn’t necessarily be viewed positively by the community; it was nice to see Hill arguing that sometimes giving into urges is a good thing, not something to be ashamed of. The other theme I mentioned was the indifference of God and the perceived futility of praying to him; considering the importance of religion to the vast majority of Americans, I was absolutely stunned that the idea even came up. I’m quite glad it did, to be honest. While I do have several friends who are Christian, my boyfriend being one of them, I have never understood what kind of benevolent God would allow the kinds of horrific things that people do to each other to happen. I have also never understood the sentiment that all the suffering will be worth it in whatever afterlife there may be. This is, of course, merely my opinion, but I’m sort of glad that it’s considered seriously in the story.
The only other thing I want to mention in this review is probably the main character, Ig. He’s one of the few ‘every-man’ protagonists that has been my favourite throughout. Most characters aiming to be average tend to go a bit too far on either end of the scale; either they’re still too perfect and their flaws are only apparent by other characters telling us about them, or they’re too average and just blend into the background whilst the secondary characters outshine them. For me, Ig was as realistic as any person I’ve met in real life: he’s a good person at heart, but has several moments where he lets his temper get the better of him or he seriously considers giving up, like a real person. I think if Ig hadn’t been the main character, I wouldn’t have read this as compulsively as I did.
Overall? I adored it. The plot was interesting, the characters were engaging and the way that Hill illustrated how little we can know someone was absolutely chilling. 5/5
Next review: Room by Emma Donoghue.