By Joe Hill
Ignatius Perrish wakes up one morning after a night of hard drinking to discover he has two horns growing from his head in Horns, the second novel from Joe Hill, the son of prolific horror novelist, Stephen King.
Ignatius (Ig to those who know him) is notorious in his hometown because everybody there thinks he raped and murdered his girlfriend a year ago. The night before his horns emerged, he went to the site where his girlfriend, Merrill’s body was found and urinated on the memorials left there. Among the items there was a figurine of the Mother Mary which Ig took special care to urinate upon.
He comes out of the bedroom to find his current girlfriend in front of the television, eating donuts. Without compulsion or explanation, she confesses that she performed oral sex on their mutual friend, Lee, the night before in a bar parking lot while others looked on. She also confesses that despite the fact that she isn’t hungry, she wants to eat all the donuts in the box. She asks Ig if she ought to. Ig tells her to go ahead. She doesn’t seem to notice the horns.
He goes to the doctor who examines him. While conducting the exam, the doctor tells him he’d rather be taking oxycodone and asks Ig if he thinks he ought to. The waiting room receptionist tells Ig she’d like to scream at a woman who refuses to discipline her child. It seems that people are now revealing to Lee their darkest desires.
He finds out his priest hates him and believes that he killed his girlfriend. Two local cops want to beat him up. His parents don’t want him around anymore and his grandmother is disgusted by him. Even those who should unconditionally love him believe he killed his girlfriend.
Ig also learns from his brother, Terry, that Ig’s best friend, Lee, killed Merrin and Terry helped him cover up.
From there, Hill switches gears and goes into flashback mode where he tells the story of how Ig, Merrin, and Lee formed the childhood bond that would lead to Merrin’s untimely death and Ig’s misery.
When they were kids, Terry dares Ig to ride a shopping cart down a hill near an abandoned foundry. If he does it, Terry will give him a cherry bomb. Ig takes the ride and crashes at the bottom, landing in a deep pool of water. He is pulled from the water and when he awakens, it’s Lee who is standing over him. Ig believes that Lee has rescued him and the two quickly become best friends.
Lee and Ig attend the same church. One day, Ig notices a new girl sitting in a pew across the aisle from him. The cross she wears around her neck reflects light into Ig’s eyes and Ig believes she is telegraphing a message to him in Morse code. He is immediately infatuated. When church ends, Ig notices that the cross has fallen from her neck and is laying on the pew, its clasp broken. Ig retrieves it, hoping to fix it and return it to her.
One evening Lee is visiting Ig and Ig tells Lee about the cross and the girl in church. Lee has noticed this new girl as well. Lee offers to fix the clasp on the cross for Ig. Ig, still feeling a debt to Lee for saving his life, gives him the cross and tells him to fix it and return it to the girl.
Lee fixes the cross, but Ig, still desperate to meet this new girl who he learns will be moving to town permanently soon, trades his cherry bomb to Lee to get the cross back. When Merrin appears in church that Sunday, Ig introduces himself and returns the cross. They soon become a couple.
Later, the whole town finds out that Lee is in fact a thief and liar. He’s been stealing merchandise from stores in the mall where he works. He’s also been running a magazine sales scam, claiming the money was for charity. After a trip to juvenile court, Lee seems to be born again and strives to do good deeds, talking to Sunday school children about his misdeeds and how he found salvation.
Later, Lee and his buddies detonate the cherry bomb on the windshield of an old car. A piece of glass lodges itself in Lee’s eye and he loses his sight. Ig feels guilty and visits him in the hospital. Lee assures Ig that it was not his fault.
The flashback then moves to more recent events – the night that Merrin broke it off with Ig and was murdered. They meet at a local watering hole. Ig is about to take off for a six month internship in England with Amnesty International. Merrin surprises Ig by telling him that she thinks they should see other people while Ig is gone. The only relationship they’ve ever had is with each other. Merrin insists that they should explore other opportunities.
Ig is stunned and devastated. He argues with her, pleads with her, and then flees from the bar in anger. What Merrin does afterward we learn later.
Back in the present tense, Ig decides to confront Lee with the knowledge that he killed Merrin. Everybody else is compelled to tell Ig the truth. Ig hopes it will be the same with Lee who now works for a Republican congressman.
He arrives and is confronted by the congressman’s security detail. Lee agrees to come down and see him. Ig lays out his accusation and waits for the horns to work. Lee is unfazed. He denies killing Merrin and tells Ig to get gone.
Ig takes up residence in the old foundry where they played as children. He sleeps in the furnace and makes friends with the numerous snakes who inhabit the area. They congregate around him. He’s always been afraid of snakes, but how he finds an affinity for them.
He returns to his parents home and finds Terry there. By touching Terry, he learns why his own brother was complicit in the murder of his girlfriend and covered for Lee. Lee and Terry were out partying one night. Lee tells Terry that Merrin has confided in him that she plans to break it off with Ig. He wants to drive by the bar where Merrin is meeting Ig to make sure they are okay. Terry is too drunk and too stoned to protest.
They get there and find Merrin standing outside in the rain, crying. Lee asks her to get into the car and they take off. Terry passes out in the backseat, striking his head on a tool box. While Terry is passed out, Lee goes off into the woods with Merrin. He returns and awakens Terry and tells him that Merrin is dead. Furthermore, he has made it so that it will appear as if Terry killed her. Terry is blackmailed into keeping quiet. The actual events that transpired between Lee and Merrin are not yet revealed.
Ig returns to the foundry to ponder what he’s learned. He gets drunk on cheap wine and notices that the snakes have once again gathered. He delivers a drunken sermon to his new congregation about how God fears women because, like God, women have the power of creating life.
He also has a flashback to a memory of an afternoon when he and Merrin were teenagers and found a tree house in the middle of the woods. The couple enter the tree house and make love. While lying in afterglow, somebody tries to force entry into the tree house via a trap door. Scared, Ig and Merrin place and old chair over the door. The person leaves. The couple then pray over plastic figurines of Mary, Jesues, and the Devil and leave. They try to find the tree house again, but are never able to find it.
As he’s reveling in his past and preaching to his slithering congregation, Lee shows up with his henchman. Ig notices that Lee is wearing Merrin’s crucifix and rips it from his neck as Lee and his assistant administer a beating. They then put Ig in his car and set it afire. Instead of killing Ig, the fire restores his senses. He releases the parking brake and allows the car to roll down the hill into the river. He swims from the car with the assistance of the many snakes in the river.
We then flashback to Lee’s early life. We learn that he endured a serious brain injury as a child and his personality underwent a major change. We also learn about his lust for Merrin and how he slowly killed his mother by sweating her death in a hot room as she was prostrate from cancer.
Lee and Ig were supportive and sympathetic to the young Lee as his mother laid dying. Merrin shows up just after she dies and they embrace. Lee cops a feel and Merrin allows him to. This leads Lee to believe that Merrin wants him. He reads desire in every remark and gesture. However, when he finds her outside the bar the night she breaks it off with Ig, she tells Lee she was never interested in him. In a rage, Lee rapes and kills her with a large rock. He plants blood from Terry’s cut head on the rock to use for blackmail.
Recovered from the car fire, Ig is standing on the shore when he notices the police have arrived and a crowd has gathered. Among the crowd is Merrin’s father. Using the power of the horns, Ig convinces Merrin’s father to take him to their home. Ig explores the house and eventually makes his way to the attic where he finds Merrin’s possessions boxed up. There, he finds out the true story of Merrin’s breakup with him.
As she’d once used Morse code to attract him, she’d planned to use Morse code to explain why she was breaking it off with him. She’d planned to mail the coded letter after he’d left for England. In the letter, she explains that she has breast cancer – the same type that killed her sister. She has decided she will not undergo chemotherapy. She wants Ig out of her life because she knows that her love for him might compel her to try the therapy – not for herself – but out of love for Ig.
He returns to the foundry. His old girlfriend, Glenna finds him there and they talk. Using his newly acquired power of suggestion, he tells Glenna to leave their hometown and find a better life. She leaves, but forgets her cell phone. Ig puts the cell phone to use.
The horns give Ig the ability to imitate voices. Using Glenna’s voice, he calls Lee and lures him to the foundry. There, he sets a trap that he hopes will kill Lee. Before Lee arrives, Terry shows up, trying to convince him to come home. Lee and his sidekick, Eric, arrive and Terry hides.
Eric and Ig fight and Lee suddenly shoots Eric and kills him. He hopes to make it look as if Eric and Ig fought each other to death without Lee’s involvement. He beats Ig with the shotgun and is about to deliver the final blow when Terry surprises Lee with a blast from a trumpet to Lee’s ear. Ig gores Lee with his horns and one of Ig’s disciple snakes craws into Lee’s mouth, choking him to death.
Badly injured, Ig needs to set himself afire to restore his health. Before he does so, he has a flashback to the night before he grew the horns. He’d driven to the memorial, drunk and depressed. When he got there, he discovered the tree house had reappeared. He enters it and discovers that, all those years ago it was an older version of himself that was knocking on the trap door of the tree house.
He returns to Terry who has suffered a poisonous snake bite. He tells Terry that he will recover, but he must forget what happened at the foundry. He plants a memory of Lee, Eric, and Ig all fighting to the death. Terry eventually recovers and runs off to New York with Glenna, abandoning his life as a famous trumpet player and talk show host.
Ig sets the foundry, tree house and the cherry tree in which it is located afire. He then climbs into the burning tree house one last time. There, instead of the religious figures, he finds a the figures of a bridge and groom. Merrin is there waiting for him.
Joe Hill spins an intriguing and interesting tale right up until the end of Horns where it all falls apart on him.
People revealing their innermost unsavory thoughts to Ig was intriguing and immediately draws the reader into the novel. No explanation of the horns or their power is provided. People don’t even notice them. But their emergence leads Ig on a journey of discovery about the people around him and the defining moment of his life when his girlfriend was killed.
Although his segues into flashback were a little rough, I liked the disjointed timeline Hill employs to tell the story. He deftly parcels out clues as to what actually happened to Merrin when Lee killed her. He also employs an excellent twist with the revelation that Merrin was dying of cancer. His use of flashback was unorthodox, but effective.
What didn’t work was how Hill tried to bring the story to a climax. The climax centered around the tree house or what Ig dubbed, “The Tree House of the Mind.” The centerpiece of the climax was woefully underdeveloped and not explained.
I read and reread the sequence where Ig determines it was an older version of himself trying to gain entry into the tree house when he and Merrin were teens. How and why did this happen? Hill never explains. Why did the tree house appear to them as teens? Why did Ig find it at the end? Again, none of this is explained.
It is apparent that the tree house represents heaven and at the end, Ig dies and ascends to meet Merrin and that the two will spend an eternity as husband and wife. It’s a great concept. But to use it as the instrument of the climax of the entire novel, Hill needed to develop it more; to give the reader a greater appreciation of its significance. A blown climax can ruin an otherwise good novel. This novel wasn’t entirely ruined, but the end was certainly a disappointment.
This was a selection of my monthly book club. Most rated the book as a B-/C+ novel. Keeping in mind Joe Hill’s age, most concluded that Stephen King’s progeny would generate better books in the future and demonstrated a knack for storytelling that will serve him well.