Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Horns, by Joe Hill


I love it when fiction slips the bonds of genre expectations and becomes something altogether more than what you bargained for. Joe Hill's debut novel Heart-Shaped Box was a tautly-written horror story, but if you've read his collection 20th Century Ghosts, you know he's also more than capable of work that's whimsical rather than than frightening, sometimes intensely disturbing, but frequently touching . . . and dare I say literary?

After having finished it -- in less than 24 hours, thanks to the propulsive narrative -- I can safely assert that
Horns is not a horror novel, though it's certainly horrifying in places. It's an odd, funny, dreadful, compelling and deeply romantic story about average young people whose lives are touched by the violent and surreal.

Ig Parrish, Horns's metaphorically and literally demonized protagonist, will no doubt offend some irony-challenged readers with his (often hilarious) musings on God and the Devil -- "The Fire Sermon" is a philosophical and comedic gem -- but Ig's main concerns -- love, cruelty, revenge, and the ethical complexities of simply being human -- are universal to good literature. Hill's touch is sure, both with comedy and pathos, and the deftly woven narrative realizes his characters believably from the tumultuous desires of adolescence to the sharp wounds of adult responsibility. The ending may be slightly problematic for some (I'll need another read to be sure what I feel), but "Horns" is much more than the sum of its parts.

I won't summarize the plot here -- but I will say where Horns  fits into my literary pantheon. Touchstones would include Christopher Moore (though Hill is less giddily comic), Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses  (darkly absurd, hilariously offensive magic realism . . . and of course the horns problem), Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife   (genre-upending, wrenchingly real love story), and, for better or worse, Stephen King's classic story of adolescent innocence and experience, "The Body."

Joe Hill is one of the most promising writers working today -- in any genre -- and I hope he continues to defy expectations with every new piece.

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