March 15, 2010


by Joe Hill
370 pages, HarperCollins

Review by S.P. Miskowski

"Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things."

With this line begins the ordeal of an imperfect protagonist. Within a few days he will be utterly transformed by exposure to the kind of knowledge we all wish for at some time. Now and then everyone longs to know what others really think. But be careful what you wish for.

Ig Perrish has horns. Not the kind his trumpeter dad and brother play. The devilish kind. They have sprouted from his head overnight, and the sight of them makes people--young, old, good and not so good--babble their deepest desires in his presence.

You might ask what someone with average intelligence and a single ambition could do with such information. You might also wonder how inventive a novelist can be, given such a premise. The answer to the first question: A hell of a lot. The answer to the second: Inventive beyond expectation.

Ig Perrish has spent the past year in emotional limbo following the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin. He was drunk the night Merrin died, and has sketchy memories of the events leading up to unconsciousness. Since that night he has compromised his life in every conceivable way, drifting without direction after being accused of the crime and then released due to inconclusive evidence.

Something is still terribly wrong in Ig's world and in his mind. People are keeping secrets in the tightly knit community where he grew up. The police still suspect him of killing Merrin. His family members are keeping him at a distance. But all of this will change when people encounter Ig's new condition and begin asking his permission to do the worst things imaginable.

This is Joe Hill's second published novel. Since the 2007 novel Heart-Shaped Box he has written numerous short stories as well as the comic book series Locke & Key (with artist Gabriel Rodriguez). His 2005 collection of stories 20th Century Ghosts has gained near legendary status, and with good reason.

No one working in horror today is more adept than Hill at locating the source of our most common fears, the kind that contort our every day lives. His writing is both merciless and compassionate, driving hard toward the painful truth in every story while holding fast to the desires of his protagonist. His fiction is imaginative and vivid without sacrificing the psychological reality of the characters. "Pop Art" and "Abraham's Boys" from 20th Century Ghosts display a depth of wisdom about human nature that most writers only find after many years of practice.

Heart-Shaped Box was a page-turner with a fine premise. A collector of weird objects finds himself in possession of a cursed item he can't seem to get rid of, a box that keeps forcing him to face his past and the most despicable things he has ever done. But the story felt a bit stretched, possibly a novella elaborated into a novel, while Horns just manages to contain the whole story between its covers. It is more complex than the first novel, and richer in physical and psychological detail. Best of all, the protagonist is a guy we can understand and recognize from our own lives, more so than the glamorous heavy metal rock star Judas Coyne in Heart-Shaped Box.

With passing references to the fictional Coyne's music, the work of Stephen King (Hill's father and The Man when it comes to reality-based psycho-horror), the Rolling Stones (nice Morse Code message on the book's inside covers) and a slew of contemporary icons including Karl Rove, the novel does not rely on any of these for its power. Ultimately the thing that has made Joe Hill famous and sustains his work and makes it a must-read wherever it appears is that he is a damn good storyteller. In fiction, no matter what else can be said about an artist, this is what counts.

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