Hill's Muted Failure

by Arthur B

Joe Hill's Horns demonstrates that the conventional horror genre is in terminal decline.
Joe Hill's Horns, his second novel, is based on a concept which he had apparently been working on for some time - the tale of a man given the magical power to see through people's socially acceptable exteriors to perceive their darkest secrets within. Early, abortive attempts at this concept were made with various concepts for how this power would work and what sort of aesthetic it would have, but Horns finds a suitably powerful vehicle for this premise - that being Satan himself.

Our hero, Ignatius "Iggy" Perrish, is the privileged son of a famed jazz musician, who can't ask for anything more in life. His elder brother is a national celebrity who hosts a primetime talk show, his best friend is a trusted aide to a Republican congressman, and the love of his life, Merrin Williams, was brutally murdered under circumstances which left enough circumstantial evidence to make Ig look guilty as hell, but not enough to pin charges on anyone.

Well, OK, there's a few things Ig could ask for. Not being treated like a murderous rapist by most of the people he meets would be a good start. Something resembling justice for Merrin would be even better. When we catch up with Ig, he's been getting hammered on the anniversary of Merrin's death, and when he wakes up he has a vague memory of doing "terrible things" whilst drunk (we eventually find out what these things are at the end of the novel). Ig looks in the mirror and discovers that he has two devilish horns growing out of his head, and over the course of the novel he explores a range of powers that these horns have given him. The people he encounters are mesmerised into forgetting the horns - and him - once he leaves their presence. (The devil's best trick, of course, being to convince the world he doesn't exist.) When he speaks to people, they find themselves compelled to let him know the basest, most despicable urge they are feeling right at that present time, and to seek permission from him to indulge it, no matter how crazy it is; when he touches them, he gets a glimpse of the worst things they have ever done. He can speak in the voice of people's friends and acquaintances, snakes love him and will obey his whims, and fire reinvigorates and refreshes him.

With a selection of powers that broad, you'd think Ig would be all set up to get himself some revenge. But there's limitations. He can't make people do anything they don't want to do, and if they're intent on kicking the shit out of him the horns aren't going to stop them trying. The power of the horns are stopped by Merrin's old crucifix. And even when Ig parts the killer from that crucifix, he finds that his powers are only of limited utility against him. You can't exactly bewitch a man's soul if he doesn't have one...

On the whole, Horns is more of a modern-day fantasy story than it is a horror novel, placing is it does a fairly low priority on scares or evoking a sense of dread. This is most apparent in the early (and best) part of the novel, where the more low-key aspects of Ig's condition are established. Although Ig is shocked to see the horns appear, they aren't things of terror, and Hill exercises a flair for comedy that sets the book apart from his father's work as Ig blunders around trying to get a doctor to explain to him what's going on and why everyone's confessing all this repugnant nonsense to him. Another example of Hill's sardonic sense of humour is the way he drops the identity of Merrin's killer on the reader right before giving us the first flashback to Ig's teenage years, which narrates how he met Merrin and befriended Lee Tourneau, who is the murderer in question.

This bit is particularly amusing because in your average Stephen King novel (Stephen King is Joe Hill's father, remember), sections about protagonists' childhoods are usually all about the magic of being young and making cool friendships that last for life; here, that's all turned on its head, because you know that the kid that young Ig is befriending is not the sort of guy he appears to be at all. Hill's cheeky inversions of his dad's usual techniques made me smile, as did the bit where Ig gives a heretical sermon to his assembled armies of snakes, in which he denounces God as "an unimaginative writer of popular fictions". Meanwhile, in The Dark Tower series the big reveal is that Stephen King is, like, writing these characters' universe, and they have to save him otherwise their world will unravel because his writing is what keeps creation ticking along. Is this the only way Joe can bring himself to say "Your fantasy-Western series kind of stank towards the end there, Pa"?

Unfortunately, the novel isn't just a long sequence involving Ig wandering around using his new powers to troll people (though there's plenty of that), or Hill using the novel as a platform to troll his dad (much as that trolling is deserved). The metaphysics of the book become less interesting as they become more explicit - the Treehouse of the Mind stuff is sub-David Lynch nonsense - and more concerningly, both Ig and Lee suffer from Madonna-whore complexes so vast you can see them from space. In Ig's case, this comes out in the way he treats Merrin, putting her on a pedestal (and declaring her - in the guise of women in general - as being more worthy of worship than God in his sermon to the snakes), and his current girlfriend Glenna, who he likes but clearly considers second best and who has tattoos and is promiscuous and is depicted as not being especially bright. In Lee's case, his Madonna-whore complex involves him getting creepy and stalkerish around Merrin (when she's alive), who he considers virginal and pure despite the fact that she's been dating Ig for ages and makes no secret about the fact that they have had sex an awful lot, whilst he is OK with Glenna but considers her second best because oh wait that's more or less exactly the same.

And then, of course, there's Joe Hill. Who, erm, portrays Merrin as this perfect angel (or sexy devil) to be placed upon a pedestal whilst Glenna is portrayed as being kind of a whore. But a lovely whore with a great personality! But then again she gives men blowjobs in public on impulse and she isn't that bright. There was a part, around halfway through the novel, when I thought that Hill wasn't going to do this, and that his treatment of the major female characters was going to turn out to be more nuanced. This is the part where Merrin (a few hours before being murdered) suggests to Ig on the eve of him going away to London for a placement with Amnesty International that maybe the two of them should take the opportunity to take a break from their relationship and sleep with other people and get a bit more experience under their belt before they settle down with each other for the long term. What I liked about this conversation, at the time, was the way that suddenly Merrin wasn't a sweetheart fantasy figure but a real person making their own decisions, and those decisions didn't have to be things that Ig liked, and she also made some cogent points about how unhealthy Ig's tendency towards magical thinking is.

However, by the end of the novel this conversation has been completely subverted, due to two revelations. The first is that Ig's magical thinking is more or less objectively correct, as witnessed by the rediscovery of the Treehouse of the Mind (whose existence Merrin denies in the above conversation) and the fact that the epilogue isn't rooted in Ig's perspective and shows pretty direct hints that something or other supernatural has taken place. Thus, Merrin's objections to it aren't a necessary dose of reality or a well-earned telling-off, but a lapse of faith on Merrin's part.

Secondly, and more offensively, it turns out that Merrin decided to break it off with Ig in the manner that she chose thanks to Lee coaxing and manipulating her into thinking it'd be for the best, so it's no longer Merrin behaving in a way which, to be fair, doesn't exactly make it easy for Ig to swallow the bad news, but Merrin behaving in an out of character manner because of the baleful influence of a bad man. And then a bit later, this is turned on its head again when Ig discovers a letter from Merrin describing the real reason why she wanted to distance herself from him - she's discovered that she has the same fast-acting cancer that killed her sister, and she doesn't want him to suffer the pain of seeing her die like that. So our perfect Merrin wasn't being mean when she was dumping Ig, she was splitting up with him because she's just that nice and loves him that much!

So, yes, two guys with a Madonna-whore complex essentially get in a fight over whether women should be murdered for being whores and/or for failing to be Madonnas, or whether instead they should be worshipped for being Madonnas and forgiven for being whores. With a narration which seems skewed towards backing up their complexes. No question about it, the book declines sharply towards the end - not as much as A Dark Matter does in that there were still flashes of enjoyment towards the end and the depiction of Ig's ultimate fate is pretty fun, but still, it's much less consistent than Heart-Shaped Box. On top of this, there's points where the prose crashes into a wall. Check out this quote from fairly early on in the book, when Ig is confronting his brother Terry:
"I loved you two guys and wanted you to be happy. I never would've done anything to hurt her."

"I know that," Ig said.

"And if I had any idea Lee Tourneau was going to kill her, I would've tried to stop it," Terry said. "I thought Lee was her friend. I've wanted to tell you so bad, but Lee made me keep quiet. He made me."

"EEEEEEEEEE," Ig screamed.

"He's awful, Ig," Terry said. "You don't know him. You think you do, but you don't have any idea."

"EEEEEEEEEEEE," Ig went on.
I'm sorry, but if you are saying EEEEEEEEE loudly and as monotonously and inflectionlessly as the above implies, that isn't a scream of horror or disgust or rage, that's you pretending to be an especially irritating car alarm. And I don't care whether or not Terry was in a magic horn trance during that sequence, he should have been reacting to Ig screaming his lungs out as opposed to just blithely plunging along with his story - especially since it's established by scenes before and after this one that people under the spell of the horns do carry on conversations with Ig and do react to stuff he does. I have no idea whether that was meant to be serious, or whether Hill was stumbling in the direction of intentional comedy, tripped, and hit his head on unintentional comedy instead. It's easily the worst example of the writing on offer, but it's far from the only point where Hill gets sloppy.

Now, here's something really bizarre: both A Dark Matter, which as you will recall is my least favourite horror novel ever, and Horns were nominated for the 2010 Bram Stoker Award for best horror novel. Both of them prominently feature a character called "Lee" with similar French-sounding surnames - "Tourneau" in Horns, and "Traux" in A Dark Matter. Both of these Lees have vision issues which they were not born with - Lee Traux went blind at around the age of thirty, whilst Lee Tourneau damaged one of his eyes badly in a youthful accident with a cherry bomb. Both of these characters inhabit a story in which magical thinking turns out to have a better handle on what's going on than rationalism.

Both of them undergo an experience with lasting negative ramifications for them in a field in which crops are grown. Lee Traux takes part in a dodgy ritual in the local university's agriculture department's field which results in her being cursed by one of the planetary spirits of Mercury, a curse which is explicitly stated as being the cause of her blindness. Lee Tourneau has a fall and suffers brain damage in the cornfield behind his house when he is a small child, and it's implied that this is when he lost his soul and became a sociopath. (Lee's mother, on her deathbed, is convinced that the cruel, uncaring carer that torments her isn't really her son but a soulless monster, and her son is still out there playing on the fence in the cornfield.)

As a result of this experience in the field, both characters had a brief and fleeting moment of communion with God - Lee Traux's soul turned into a time-travelling skylark and she went on a vision-quest and ended up pissing herself before the Godhead, whilst Lee Tourneau remains convinced for the rest of his life that for a short span of time he became this Old Testament figure, fixing the moon aright in its orbit with one hand and killing a cat that had offended him with his other.

Both stories prominently involve sociopaths who are connected with these Lees and their field experiences. Lee Tourneau becomes a sociopath as a result of his. Lee Traux's skylark soul explores the inner world of the sociopathic Keith Hayward (who turns out to have some good within him, as do we all) during her experience in the field, and in later life she demonstrates an ability to summon his spirit under certain circumstances - or at least set things up so that his spirit is likely to visit.

Both of these stories present an idiosyncratic view of spirituality, rooted in Christianity but with a healthy dose of mysticism and the occult added.

Both of these were penned by persons in Stephen King's social circle - one by a friend and regular collaborator, one by King's son.

Both of these stories have female characters that the protagonist (and at least one other major character) places on a pedestal and absolutely worships - Merrin in Horns, Lee/the Eel in A Dark Matter. Both stories have another female character who's portrayed as a whore - Meredith in A Dark Matter is depicted as a sinister manipulator who sleeps her way to the top and likes it that way (and a dried-up old hag on top of that), whilst Glenna in Horns blows guys in parking lots.

The similarities are incredible. One is almost tempted to posit that a certain Lee T. has infiltrated the King circle and is recruiting members of it into a heretical cult which combines traditional occultism with Nice Guy ideology. This would at least be funnier than the prospect that the horror field - or, at least, that part of it which isn't categorised as dark fantasy in some bookshops - has become so incestuous and creatively bankrupt that there literally aren't enough plots, characters, and themes to go around, and a small circle of writers surrounding Stephen King are exerting an such excessive dominance over the field both commercially and critically that two key members of that circle can write absolute horseshit and still get nominated for top awards. No wonder girl books for girls are more popular these days - at least there's new writers, new ideas, and actual talent emerging over in the dark fantasy shelves.

At this point, I'm willing - eager, even - to recant my previous scepticism of the new genre. On the contrary, I hope it proves so successful that conventional, mainstream horror as it currently stands is driven off the market entirely until the next Machen or Lovecraft or Ligotti comes along to reinvent and reinvigorate the genre again. I honestly expect to get more enjoyment out of giving Fallen a try or retreating into my Ramsey Campbell backlog than any explorations of more recent horror publications at this point. Aside from the ever-capable Campbell, I don't think I've read a really good horror novel that was published after Let the Right One In.

There's one similarity between the two books I didn't list above. Both stories are by horror authors, are published as horror, and are marketed to a horror audience, but they aren't really horror stories in the sense that they aren't really trying to scare you (well, A Dark Matter is in firmly horror territory for its first act or so). I mentioned a while back in my review of one of the Read By Dawn compilations that it seemed that many new writers in the genre don't seem to be interested in scaring the reader or really trying to write horror; now it seems that even established horror authors are slinking away from the genre, or at least are making a stab at introducing a more literary approach to their work which eschews scaring the reader or creating a pervasive atmosphere of dread in favour of things which they reckon will snag them good reviews from highbrow critics. But this effort to create respectable horror has only revealed that these pillars of the genre don't have many ideas left and aren't brilliant at executing the ones they have, resulting in work which is neither respectable nor (intentionally) horrific.

On the whole, I think Horns is a bit better than A Dark Matter, though I admit that it's not so good that I'm inclined to keep hold of it. I don't think it's unjust that Horns didn't win the 2010 Bram Stoker Award that it was nominated for, but I do think it's an outrage that it was beaten by A Dark Matter. Neither of them deserved to win, and I'm beginning to think none of the nominees deserved to win - of the two I've read so far, both have been wretched.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
valse de la lune at 10:42 on 2011-08-22
"EEEEEEEEEE," Ig screamed.

"He's awful, Ig," Terry said. "You don't know him. You think you do, but you don't have any idea."

"EEEEEEEEEEEE," Ig went on.

I'm sorry but I can't get past this. EEEEEEEE.
Arthur B at 10:50 on 2011-08-22
Janne Kirjasniemi at 17:46 on 2011-08-22
So... are you going to read any more of these Bram Stoker nominees?

I read The Very Best of Best New Horror anthology last summer and the stories there were pretty good horror stuff. Well it was a pretty bumpy ride all in all, but still. It is a pity that nothing better is apparent on the novel front. Of course the Anthology was compiled from anthologies from a span of twenty years, so it doesn't really prove anything Joe Hill's story there, 20th Century ghost was okay too, I guess.

It's funny, but most of the issues you pointed out here, the madonna/whore issue and Nice Guy Syndrome and what not could be overlooked(and I do not mean supported or accepted) in a horror novel if it actually was scary, whereas if it fails at the horror, you start looking at how it fails in other respects too. Kinda like you don't expect action to depict physics very loyally, but if its boring you start to get really bugged by failings in that respect too. In good horror you will accept that the protagonist is an asshole or that the world is quite broken, but only if the story succeeds in the basic thing it tries to achieve, that is to scare or depress the reader.
Sister Magpie at 19:18 on 2011-08-22
Now I really am fascinated by the idea of this cult around the friends of Stephen King. It makes me wonder if they didn't have some Frankenstein-like session where somebody proposed a contest where everyone wrote a story with these elements!

It would be a great subject for a horror novel, if only there weren't already too many horror novels about horror writers...
Arthur B at 20:38 on 2011-08-22
So... are you going to read any more of these Bram Stoker nominees?

Given the utter dreck that won, I'm afraid to. Which I guess means they're succeeding in creating horror in one respect.

Now I really am fascinated by the idea of this cult around the friends of Stephen King. It makes me wonder if they didn't have some Frankenstein-like session where somebody proposed a contest where everyone wrote a story with these elements!

"I'm going to have to ask you to write Gospels of me," said Lee T., drinking from a goblet made from Stephen's hollowed-out skull as the Disciples quivered before their dark messiah. "Joe, you'll have the hardest task of all: you need to be my Judas, and write of me from the Devil's point of view. Bring out all my flaws, all my callousness, the parts of me that are like God and the parts of me that make me less than a man. Given your... unenthusiastic response to the Killing of the King rite, I imagine you'd do quite well at that."
Wardog at 13:23 on 2011-08-25

For srs?
Arthur B at 14:20 on 2011-08-25
http://alula-auburn.livejournal.com/ at 20:57 on 2011-08-29
EEEEEEEEEEE would get you laughed off most fanfic archives, I think. What?

And eeeeewwwwww (do I get a Bram Stoker nom now? I can do sound effects, too!) at such DULL Madonna/whore rehashing.
Sonia Mitchell at 10:50 on 2014-01-21
My local Poundland is carrying copies of this, so I figured why not?

I got through this, so it did better than Heart-Shaped Box, but I agree with your criticisms. Also wanted to add that there are times where Hill simply doesn't seem to describe actions very clearly. This seemed most noticeable during the confrontations with Lee at the Forge - I didn't know if Ig had the crucifix, for example, which is pretty important when interpreting their interactions.

And I was very worried for a while that it was setting up a "Merrin consented to sex and then died in an accident so in a way Lee is the victim, d'ya see" situation.

I enjoyed the flashbacks, and found Lee's part of the narrative genuinely creepy. I couldn't get a handle on his perception of Ig as such a conspicuously good guy, with the whole 'What Would Ig Do?' thing. But maybe that's the point - that Ig was his template for normal behaviour, which to him seemed excessive. At any rate, he was engagingly alienating.

The 'EEEEE' is startlingly bad for coming in the early part of the book, which as you said is the better part.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in August 2011