Monday, May 10, 2010

Horns by Joe Hill

I picked up Joe Hill's second novel, Horns, with the clear understanding that it would be my make-or-break experience with this author.  Hill wowed me with his debut collection, 20th Century Ghosts, a work that sits alongside Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others and Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners on the shelf of essential genre collections of the last decade, whose stories were both of and about the horror genre, constantly asking what it means to write or consume a genre rooted in misery and fear.  If 20th Century Ghosts skewed towards the literary end of the genre, Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, leaned towards the pulpy end, touching only lightly and with less nuance on the questions that were at the heart of his short stories.  It was a good book, but not a very interesting one, and with Horns I hoped to discover whether the writer Joe Hill wanted to be was one I would want to follow.  My results are mixed.  Horns is a better book--tighter, better written, more engaging--than Heart-Shaped Box, and though still primarily an entertaining rather than thought-provoking work, it delves more deeply into its central questions, which are here about issues of theology as much as they are an investigation of Hill's genre.  The answers that Hill gives, however, are at best puerile, at worst deeply objectionable.

Hill's crowning achievement in Horns is its beautiful, instantly captivating structure.  The book launches readers straight into its action--the story's opening paragraph tells us that the protagonist, Ignatius "Ig" Perrish, has woken up with horns, and within two short chapters both he and we understand their power.  Under the influence of the horns, the people Ig meets tell him their darkest secrets and most shameful desires, and lose the self-control and better nature that held the latter in check, leaving them open to Ig's influence for better or worse.  Hill also wastes no time in establishing Ig's background--a year ago, his childhood sweetheart Merrin Williams was raped and murdered.  Ig was blamed for the murder, but when the forensics lab processing the evidence from Merrin's crime scene burned down the investigation was terminated, leaving Ig a free man but, in the eyes of everyone who knows him, including his and Merrin's families, a guilty one.  Since then he's cut himself off from his former life and spiraled towards self-destruction, but now, with the horns' power, he sets out to discover the truth about Merrin's murder.  The investigation at the heart of the novel, however, is not a whodunnit--the perpetrator is revealed within less than a hundred pages--but a whydunnit.  The novel moves back and forth through Ig and Merrin's lives, constantly complicating our understanding of them and their relationship--we learn, for example, that hours before her death Merrin broke up with Ig because she felt trapped by a decade-long relationship that had left her with no opportunity to explore other lovers or become her own person--as we close in on the reason for Merrin's death.

There are two issues with Hill's choice of structure.  The first is that Merrin's killer, whose point of view in the weeks leading up to the murder takes over the novel in its later chapters, is such a broad caricature of reactionary, misogynistic evil that one almost senses Hill ticking boxes on a form: he's a former bedwetter, he tortures animals, he hates his mother (and later, when she becomes ill, tortures her to death), he's a racist, he's a homophobe, he's anti-choice, he's a Republican.  This is better, I suppose, than having a villain who is a left-wing, gay feminist, but what it smacks of is an author who is aware that violence against women is the bread and butter of his genre and that there is something creepy and exploitative about this fact, and who overcompensates for his choice to make a rape-murder the crux of his novel by turning his villain's misogyny up to eleven.  It's not that I wanted to sympathize with or understand this character, but Hill's construction of him is familiar from so many other authors who have gone down this path that there were hardly any surprises or revelations in the pages the novel spent inside his head.

The second issue is that though we spend a lot of time getting to know Ig as a teenager and in the last days of his relationship with Merrin, post-transformation the character is something of a blank.  His purpose is to explore the people around him and use his powers to plumb the depths of their souls, but on the question of how, or even whether, he feels about turning into a demon the novel is frustratingly silent. Early in the story, for example, Ig has a hellish meeting with his family, in which he learns that to a one they all hate him and believe that he's guilty of Merrin's murder, and snaps, attacking and seriously injuring his grandmother.  We never learn how he feels about this--guilty, pleased, scared?  This would work if Horns were merely, as the novel's final chapters strongly suggest, a superhero's origin story, tracking the process by which Ig the person is subsumed into Ig the rooter out of sins, who punishes people for the crimes they've committed and tries to steer them away from the ones they want to commit, but it sits less well with a more prominent theme in the novel, Ig's struggle with The Problem of Evil.  Raised a Catholic, Ig had a reflexive and thoughtless belief in the church's teachings until Merrin's death shook it out of him.  In the novel's key scene, Ig hears voices in a fire, and delivers a sermon to a crowd of snakes that encapsulates his new take on religion.
Merrin and I were to each other like man and wife.  But she wanted more than me, wanted freedom, a life, a chance to discover herself.  She wanted other lovers and wanted me to take other lovers as well.  I hated her for this.  So did God.  For simply imagining she might open her legs to another man, He turned His face from her, and when she called to Him, as she was raped and murdered, He pretended He did not hear.  He felt, no doubt, that she received her due. I see God now as an unimaginative writer of popular fictions, someone who builds stories around sadistic and graceless plots, narratives that exist only to express His terror of a woman's power to choose who and how to love, to redefine love as she sees fit, not as God thinks it ought to be.  The author is unworthy of His own characters.  The devil is first a literary critic, who delivers this untalented scribbler the public flaying He deserves.
Assuming that this is not simply another attempt by Hill to weasel out of responsibility for structuring his novel around the rape and murder of a woman by hanging a metafictional lantern on that fact, what are we to make of this strange passage?  The Problem of Evil is a tough one, and should be approached with an appropriate tough-mindedness, but if we're to take Ig's sermon seriously--and given that the only person who might argue with it, Ig himself, is almost entirely absent from this part of the novel we have little choice but to do so--then Hill's treatment of it is depressingly wishy-washy.  I can respect a character whose suffering leads them to believe that God doesn't exist or that God is evil.  I can even respect a character whose response to suffering is to side with evil--one of the few subplots that really worked for me in Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart was the one about a man whose family is murdered by the title characters, and who is so incensed by the thought that while his loved ones, who died unshriven, are in purgatory, the brothers might see heaven if they confess their sins before dying, that he sells his soul and knowingly becomes a demon.  Ig's response to suffering, however, is not simply to lay all evil in the world at God's feet, but to minimize the devil's wickedness.  In his cosmology, God is a sadistic prig who punishes fornication with rape and murder while the devil has all the best tunes, winks at the sins of the flesh, and throws a good party.  It's hard to associate any depth of grief or rage with such a juvenile moral outlook, which smacks of teenage short-sightedness--Mom and Dad are evil because they set rules and boundaries, while the cool uncle who lets you smoke and drink is the good guy.

Implicit in Ig's take on God is the belief that drinking and screwing are worse sins than murder and rape, and though there are, of course, people in the world who believe this, our glimpses of Ig's upbringing and religious background don't suggest that he was raised in such an environment (in fact, when his parish priest comes under the influence of the horns, the man gleefully confesses to adultery but castigates Ig for Merrin's murder).  So it's unclear why he should have decided that Merrin's death was punishment for wanting her sexual independence (again, this is where a deeper exploration of Ig post-transformation, or even immediately following Merrin's death, would have made for a much stronger book), but to be fair to Hill, the novel's ending explodes this take on the murder when it reveals that at the time of her murder Merrin was ill with the same type of cancer that had already claimed the life of her sister.  In a letter to Ig, Merrin expresses the fear that, like her sister, she will spend the last months of her life succumbing to her darkest impulses, allowing fear and bitterness to take her over and poison her relationships with the people she loves.
I would like very much to believe in a Gospel of Mick and Keith, where I can't get what I want--which is you, Ig, and our children, and our ridiculous daydreams--but at least get what I need, which is a quick, sudden ending and the knowledge that you got away clean.
This is, to put it mildly, a problematic twist.  Again, in all fairness to Hill, he does not use the fact that Merrin was dying or the fact that she desired a quick death to minimize the awfulness of the death she got (though, of course, the devil's progressive acceptance of her right to want other lovers is somewhat undermined by her confession that she only ever wanted Ig).  By the time we learn these facts about her we've already witnessed the rape and murder first hand and know that she fought for her life (on the flip side, we also know that for what it was, Merrin's death was mercifully quick).  But if Horns just barely avoids the creepy implications of making a rape and murder the solution to a woman's problems, it doesn't avoid the complete collapse of Ig's theology under the revelation that Merrin's murder was God giving her what she needed.  If God--not the devil, and not her actual killer--is responsible for Merrin's unnatural death, shouldn't he be held even more responsible for the cancer that caused her to need it in the first place?  And are we to understand that all of the people in the world who suffer fates as terrible as Merrin's, or worse, are getting what they needed?  Ig's construction of God as sadistic and judgmental is immature, but it's replaced by something risible--the notion that all the evil in the world is part of God's convoluted, Rube Goldberg-ish plan to do good.  Hill is by no means the first author to try to solve The Problem of Evil with this horribly over-literal take on the platitude that God works in mysterious ways--see also Signs and the ending of Battlestar Galactica--and like the authors of those works, he only ends up compounding it.  This is why the equivalence he draws between God and a horror writer is so wrongheaded.  Fiction, famously, has to make sense where reality can simply be, and whereas the revelation of a clever underlying plan, however horrific its components, can give meaning to a work of fiction, to overlay that plan on reality is an act of unspeakable callousness.

A glance through the novel's other reviews suggests that for many reviewers, the simple fact that Horns offers sympathy for the devil is innovative enough to set it apart from other works of horror.  Perhaps the reason that I don't share their enthusiasm is that the devil plays almost no part in Jewish tradition, a fact that Hill himself touches on when he has a character point out, near the end of the novel, that in non-Christian religions the devil is sometimes God's ally.  As far as Judaism is concerned, this is putting the cart slightly before the horse.  The word satan appears several times in the Bible, meaning adversary, and in the book of Job--an ancient treatment of The Problem of Evil which Horns quite consciously parallels--he is God's servant, but it was probably much later that the term came to be associated with the Christian devil, who is a force for evil.  What Hill tries to do in Horns is to have the best of both worlds.  The creature that Ig transforms into gets to keep the Christian devil's outer signifiers--horns, red skin, flaming nostrils, pitchfork--while playing the Jewish devil's more mundane, more tolerable role as a heavenly prosecutor.  That, and the forced comparison to the book of Job, which forces its readers to accept their inherent inability to comprehend the universe as God does, only serve to show up the shallowness of Horns's engagement with The Problem of Evil.

This might sound a bit strange given the drubbing I've just given it, but I did genuinely enjoy reading Horns.  It's a quick and absorbing read, and while I was caught up in Ig's adventures and his quest to avenge Merrin the problems with its theology didn't bother me very much.  It was only once I finished the novel and thought about it for a bit that it became so deeply objectionable, and I imagine that for a lot of readers who won't choose to take that step Horns will simply be another enjoyable read from Joe Hill.  For my part, I think I'm going to leave him alone from now on, and wait to see if he's once again acclaimed for something more thoughtful like the stories in 20th Century Ghosts.

9 comments:

Chuk said...

Your review makes me like the book less than I did. I didn't think much about the theology at all. (Although I did notice that the "bad guy" was over the top, I didn't mind it. Kind of seemed par for the genre at the time.)

I still enjoyed reading it, and I'd put it a step up from Heart-Shaped Box.

Omer said...

fascinating stuff, as usual.

But isn't the problem with the problem of evil that it has no good answers? There are no new answers and the old ones are all unsatisfactory.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Omer:

Oh, absolutely. But that's something I'd expect a writer to be aware of before they tried to tackle it themselves.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review. I had a rather different take. I read "Horns" as a straightforward take on the Book of Job. And I thought the speech to the snakes was Ig momentarily succumbing to the temptation to be like Satan, only to "redeem" himself at the end by doing the work of justice (i.e. meting out punishment to the bad guys), which would be God's work, wouldn't it? So he's basically taken on the role of an avenging angel. This is still pretty simplistic as theology goes, but it does put him squarely in the tradition of crusaders, not devils, IMO.

All the Lucifer imagery is just a bit too blatant, anyway, isn't it? I don't think Hill is such a plodding writer as to expect us to take it literally. Anyway, I took it as the author's way of saying that divine vengeance is more fun with a sax solo.

My only real problem with the book was that Merrin turned out to have been the perfect pure girlfriend all along, as you pointed out. Wouldn't it have been miles better if she really HAD broken up with Ig to date other people? It would have made her more human. But from the theological point of view, albeit distressingly simplistic, I took away a pro-Christian impression.

Then again, I'm a hardcore Christian myself, so maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see! :) Anyway, I very much enjoyed reading your review!

Anonymous said...

I picked up this book on the strength of your review and really enjoyed it. Thanks!

Marc said...

I think that the horns by Joe hills are very interesting but some time it asking wrong questions.

Anonymous said...

I interpret Hill's depiction of his "God's" failings as more than merely hating screwing. Both Ig and the "god" really express the primal, infantile rage that the female is not merely an extension of self designed for self-leasuring and love, but instead an independent and sentient being able to choose.

Tough luck, I say. Get over it. If you want your woman to love you best and only be worthy of it. If she says "no" just recall all the centuries that men told women "no" to everything else.

Anonymous said...

oops.

I meant "self-PLEASURING". . .

Anonymous said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this book. Until the end... too many unanswered questions... I crave closure, and i didnt get it. But i would recommend it just to hear others take on the story...

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