Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Horns by Joe Hill

I'm really struggling to come up with something clever to say on this one.

First, I loved it. I've been reading a lot lately, given that I no longer have access to video games or a TV, and most of the stuff coming across my desk have been slogs to get through. I breezed through Horns and I didn't want it to end.

Second, the themes of the book hit me at the right time. I broke up with my girlfriend of seven years within the past year and I'm currently at the "oh my god, why did I let her go" phase. This story is essentially The Crow, in that supernatural agency allows a wronged man to seek revenge, but unlike The Crow's ethereally perfect love, Ig's romance with poor doomed Merrin is much more fraught with doubt and discomfort and pain. She's murdered the night she dumps Ig in a bar and the conversation she has with him rings cruelly authentic. There's a bit where she accuses him of putting her on a pedestal and loving the image he's made of her rather than who she is as a person.

That stuff resonated with me because, unlike a lot of love stories in genre work, it resonated with authenticity. Hill has a real gift with chronicling realistically damaged relationships. I remember a line from Heart Shaped Box where Judas Coyne talked about staying up late at night so his girlfriend would be too tired to want sex. I've been to that level of dysfunction and I haven't seen it detailed with the same heartbreaking accuracy that Joe Hill brings. I dunno where he's been in his life, but you can't make that shit up.

I actually had some trouble with the twist, which essentially invalidated Merrin's previous behavior. I liked the difficulty and ambivalence of Ig's memories of Merrin and when it turned out that every decision she made was made out of love for Ig suddenly stripped the story of the emotional murkiness that I found so charming. Then again, I'm not exactly reading the story without baggage.

One of the things that I really liked about the story was the way it was told from multiple angles. It's essentially a very small story between a couple of characters, but nature of Ig's powers allow the readers to see the crime from several points of view. At no point does the book feel padded, mostly due to the strength of the characterization. Hill has a great command of his character's point of view. Ig's lovestruck, self-loathing perspective on events is a million miles away from Lee Tourneau's selfish, sociopathic take on his crimes, and both are equally entertaining to follow.

Finally, both of Hill's novels feature female characters who start out in the background but eventually come into their own. In Horns, it was the sad, damaged Glenna. I really liked her arc in the story. We know that she doesn't like herself much, that she's curvy but sees herself as fat and grotesque, and that she possesses a wounded beauty. She's one of the invisible people of the story and my heart went out to her.

Maybe it's my love of superhero stories, but I really dug Ig's transformation into a pitchfork-wielding, red skinned devil. It's a compelling image for a character and it has the same nifty internal logic of a good comic book story.

I even dug his powers, which compel people to confess their darkest secrets to him. I was originally a little iffy on this aspect of the story because I was worried it would turn into yet another variation of the same old "people are shits deep down" that I've gotten bored with before, but the characters in Ig's world are all interconnected, and you see the effect of one person's secret spill over into another. Their deepest, most unspoken thoughts are especially vicious given that almost every character in the book believe Ig murdered Merrin, which deepens our sympathy for him as we see how much of an outcast he's become. The scene with the waitress who originally reported Ig to the police is especially amusing because we find out just how messed up he is. I could have easily read an entire novel where Ig goes around getting confessions from people. Reading the story in my wretched, misbegotten state, I couldn't help but wish I could use this power on my ex and figure out exactly what she felt about me, but I doubt I would have liked the answers.

Ig's powers grow to a point where he can start tempting people to act on their secret desires. He almost seems like he's going to walk the path of damnation, especially given the shocking and slightly out-of-character scene where he nearly kills his grandmother after she confesses her hatred of him. Instead, this devil turns out to possess some decency, and spends the rest of the story walking a brutal road to redemption, one that involves him using Morse code, finding a tree house, getting set on fire, wearing a blue skirt, and discovering an aversion to the crucifixes of dead ex-girlfriends. As the story went along, I discovered that I really didn't care how he got all these cool powers, but the explanation cooked up at the end is both lyrical and strangely satisfying.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I liked it more than Heart Shaped Box and I foresee a future where Joe Hill is a big cheese in genre fiction. You can read a really good interview with him here, along with a pretty good review of it from the AV Club.

This was one of those books that came along at the right time in my life. The themes of lost love and alienation really resonated with me. I sometimes wish I could find the Tree House of the Mind, with it's strange votive candles and cheerful proprietor. There's a lot of trees in this city. Maybe it will appear for me when it's needed.