A year after his girlfriend is raped and murdered and the morning after a night spent mourning the anniversary in his own drunken way, Ignatius Perrish wakes up with horns growing out of his head. The most he can remember is that he did some "awful things" while incapacitated, but he finds his horns give him two strange new abilities—people around him are compelled to tell him their innermost guilty secrets and he is able to convince them to act on them. Joe Hill's novel dances along the edge of many genre boundaries—mystery, thriller, horror—and it is a taut and compelling read. For a day and a half, I did not want to put the book down, and its narrative has stayed with me since I finished it, even as I have been reading other things.
At first Ig struggles with the horns and their powers. He is horrified by what people tell him, the dark secrets that most people barely admit to themselves. As Ig staggers out of his bedroom, his roommate confesses that she wants to eat an entire box of stale doughnuts and then proceeds to do so, nearly choking on them in her haste to consume them. When Ig goes to an urgent care center, he is confronted with a mother and her unhappy child, and the reactions of the other patients and the receptionist to the wailing girl. Ig fights to control the people, to keep from inadvertently pushing them into doing the horrendous acts they want to perform. And when Ig goes home to his beloved family, he discovers that they secretly believe him to be the murderer of his girlfriend and hate him and how they are all now perceived in their quiet New Hampshire town. Eventually IG discovers who actually did murder his girlfriend, Merrin, and the novel becomes a revenge story as Ig becomes determined to make the murderer pay for what he has done by taking advantage of the new abilities his horns offer him.
The horror of Ig's discoveries is balanced with fascinating flashbacks of Ig's youth and his life with Merrin. At first the flashbacks are bucolic enough—teenagers looking for something to do in the doldrums of summer. But over the course of Horns, the flashbacks become creepier and creepier as layers of falsehood (or perhaps layers of youthful perspective) get peeled back to reveal cold hard truth. Hill's story makes clear that we really don't know the people around us, even the ones closest to us. And after it is clear, the lesson is repeated to horrifying and suspenseful effect.
Taut and suspenseful as the story is, Horns also exhibits a command of language and style which makes it that much more engaging. Hill's sentences are both delicate and powerful, natural and artifice; they push the reader into a false state of security and normalcy until the blackness that lies in the souls of each of the characters is revealed. The character of Ig is similarly well-crafted—he is completely believable in every scenario that the novel places him in, from waking up with the horns to his youthful shyness when he first meets and gets to know Merrin, even to confronting her killer. He is entirely sympathetic, and his portrayal as well as Hill's language compels the reader to feel every nuance of the torture that Ig undergoes in his quest. Though most of the novel is in third-person, there are other characters that have segments devoted to their narratives; to reveal who those characters are would be to spoil the novel. I'll only say that Hill is adept enough at his craft that he can make even sociopaths seem sympathetic.
Hill is also deft at constructing the plot. Like any good mystery, every clue that the reader needs to solve the series of mysteries that the novel sets up is available in the text, so that part of the joy of reading the book are "aha!" moments when the reader works something out or it is revealed in the novel itself. Hill's timing is wonderful, including such cinematic effects as peals of thunder when something is revealed and yet those moments do not feel cheesy at all.
There might be two minor quibbles with Horns that might feel off-putting to readers. The first is the insistence of a supernatural element that borders on the miraculous, essentially a magic tree house. Just saying it without context makes it seem more childish and off-putting than it is in the book, but Hill sets it up beautifully. The real quibble lies in the contrast between the gritty earthiness of the rest of the novel and the tree house. But after some thought, I remembered that what sets the story off is, in fact, the miraculous growth of a pair of horns on a human's head. In such a world, the miraculous nature of the tree house should pose no problem, and because Hill does situate it so easily in his story, my qualms dissipated easily.
The second quibble is with the last chapter, which is a radical emotional departure from most of the rest of the novel. The chapter is jarring, especially given the places the novel takes the reader, but when it is compared with the more idyllic chapters concerning Ig's childhood, it is actually very similar in tone and style. And so that chapter jars with reason: it is directly a comparison to the suspense that has built up in the rest of the book, and since it acts as a denouement, it reflects that the story has returned to a more innocent place.
Horns is a wonderful book, a splendid reintroduction to the genre of horror and thriller. I feel constrained from going into too much detail because this book has become one of those that I will proselytize to anyone who will listen. Only rarely have I felt so moved by a book, the most recent example being China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. This is a book that I will return to again and again, one that I will offer to fellow readers as the rare combination of excellent story and style.