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Joe Hill

William Morrow / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-061-14795-1
Publication Date: 02-16-2010
370 Pages; $23.99
Date Reviewed:03-08-2010
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Horror  Mystery  General Fiction  Fantasy  Science Fiction  

It's funny to think of it, especially in the current religious climate, but the Devil is really an all-American figure — and often a hero. He — and it is inevitably a "he" — is certainly a common figure in our collective memory. We read about him in elementary school, in "The Devil and Daniel Webster." We encounter him again in high school and college, in the work of Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer. And all these are the just the academic exercises.

We actively seek out ol' Scratch whenever he gets a good airing. He was primal and utterly terrifying in 'The Exorcist.' Robert R. McCammon enlisted his help to bring about Armageddon in 'Swan Song' and Stephen King in 'The Stand.' Oh, the names are Legion, right? What's one more on the fire? In the case of 'Horns' (William Morrow / HarperCollins ; February 16, 2010 ; $23.99) by Joe Hill, he's the sort of man, or demon — whatever! -- you want on your side when the chips are down.

Hill doesn't mess around with his Devil. In an opening that reads like Kafka after a bender, protagonist Ig Perrish wakes up after a bad night — with horns. Three pages later, things start getting worse, much worse. And that's pretty hard for Ig, considering he was accused of raping and murdering the Love of His Life, only to be let off for lack of evidence — but not lack of suspicion. He's lived his life in the past year as a pariah. Now, he's grown horns. This cannot bode well — except for the reader.

'Horns' is a delightfully well-written and taut tale of internal terror. It is one thing to confront the devil. Perhaps your will might be tried, your morals might be tested, and your life might go to hell. It is another thing entirely to become the Devil, and that is the problem confronting Ig. These horns aren't just fashion-plate appliances. They're outliers of a Very Bad Thing, the externalization of a hellish internal landscape. Moreover, they seem have a bad influence on those around Ig. People tell him things, ugly things. Then there's the murder of his love, Merrin. It's never been solved other than by fingers pointed at Ig. If it were to be solved, that might not prove so beneficent to Ig's life as he would hope. Especially since he's sporting horns.

Hill does just about everything right in 'Horns.' The novel is cunningly architected, both in terms of plot and character. Hill knows how to use his supernatural tropes to chip away at chronology and re-arrange the story so that the who-done-it and the why-done-it are engagingly escalated. He's quite well aware that if he's going to wreak mayhem on the lives of these people, we'd better damn well care about them or we're just going to stop reading. He manages this through some effective rock-and-roll Americana, offering readers cringe-inducing breakup scenes counter-balanced with more visionary set-pieces of American Youth In Love. What's really interesting is that readers will speed through this mainstream fiction novella embedded in a horror novel, not realizing that they've jumped out of genre.

But then, all the way through, Hill manages to side-step the horror genre. That Kafkaesque kick-off leads Hill and readers down another path. 'Horns' is less of a horror novel and more of a Tall Tale — "Did you hear about that dude who turned into the Devil?" Sure you did. Came to a bad end, man. Took some others along for the ride. That's a ride to hell, readers will realize, and it's a fun one. Hill's Devil has more than a bit of Coyote going on, and not just the Wile E. variety, though you'll get that as well, anti-gravity and all. No matter how you tackle it, Hell is a long way down. You might as well enjoy the ride.

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