Two years ago, when Vuk and I had our daughter and I made the decision to become a full-time work-at-home parent, I suddenly found myself with a gaping chasm in my social calendar. I’d always considered myself an introvert, but spending days on end with no one to talk to except for our scowling pink blob was–shockingly–not great for my mental health. As one of our strategies to combat my postpartum depression, Vuk and I agreed that I should find some ways to interact with other stay-at-home and work-at-home parents. I joined an organization called MOPS (Moms of Preschoolers), I started taking Babyvore to Toddler Time at our local library, and (the actual point of this whole rambly introduction), I joined a monthly book club.
Book club consists of four of us. Each month, one of us chooses two books–one mystery and one fantasy or science fiction book–to read, and then, at the end of the month, we get together to discuss them. This month, it was my turn to choose. For my fantasy book, I chose Horns by Joe Hill. I had not read this book, but I had seen the movie, and I thought it would be interesting to see how similar (or dissimilar) the two turned out to be.
I was right. It was interesting. At times, Horns seemed to be in line with the movie almost word-for-word, while at others, the two were so dissimilar that it was like a punch to the throat. In this review, I’ll go over Horns (the book) in detail, while at times also mentioning similarities and differences to Horns the movie.
The Horns of Battle
Horns is about Iggy Parish, whom everyone in town believes raped and murdered his girlfriend, Merrin. One day, Iggy wakes up with horns growing out of the top of his head. The horns make people behave strangely around him: they begin telling Iggy their most terrible, intimate desires; if Iggy touches people, he can see glimpses of sins they’ve committed in their lives; and he can influence people to commit sins (providing they already have a desire to do so).
As Iggy uncovers the truth about what actually happened to Merrin on the night she died, he has to decide whether to use his new powers to avenge her death–and, if so, what he’s willing to sacrifice to bring her killer down.
The first thing I noticed when reading Horns was how gut-punchingly offensive the material was.
Of course, when the plot of a book is that you literally bring out the worst in people, being offensive is sort of the point. But I have to say, seeing it on TV was different from reading it. Shows like The Purge and The Boys have already leaned into that shock-and-awe trope, and I found myself somewhat desensitized to it on the big screen.
Not so when I was reading it.
When Iggy, the main character, touched a woman, and she referred to her black golf instructor as a “jiggaboo,” I found myself literally sick to my stomach at the casual racism.
Hill never once pulled his punches when it came to showcasing the absolute worst vestiges of humanity. It made the book simultaneously hard to read and impossible to put down. But more importantly, it made the moments when characters were behaving kindly all the more beautiful in contrast to the evil that was so apparent in the rest of the book.
The Devil is in the Details
Symbolism of heaven and hell played major roles in Horns. One of the reasons Iggy was able to make a deal with the devil and grow horns in the first place was that he grew angry with God after Merrin’s death, frustrated that a devout Christian could be allowed to be killed in such a brutal fashion.
It’s an anger that’s recognizable to anyone who has lost a loved one, and it rang true throughout the book. His continued struggle to understand his relationship with God, the Devil, and religion as a whole was emphasized by the chapters that discussed his childhood in the church, as well as the chapter where he tried to go to his priest for help and got painfully rebuffed.
As Iggy Parrish played judge, jury, and executioner to all the people who’d wronged him in his life, Joe Hill repeatedly asked the reader to make their own judgements about heaven, hell, and morality. For example, did the 80-year-old woman who was faking a hip injury and silently thought of her daughter as a whore deserve to crash into a fence going 40 miles an hour?
As the story came to a close, you had to wonder if Iggy was still a victim, or if he had become the devil that everyone in his town had assumed he was.
A (Nearly) Soulless Dimension
One issue with Horns was that the majority of the characters were two-dimensional in nature. Of course, for the most part, we were seeing a snapshot of characters on their very worst days as they provided Iggy with the worst parts of themselves. But even in the chapters where we looked back on Iggy’s childhood growing up with some of these same characters, the presentation we got was far from multi-faceted.
Merrin was presented as Lily Potter-levels of perfect. Even when she broke Iggy’s heart, it turned out to be for a completely noble reason. Bullies were brutish and thickheaded, with no redeeming qualities. Even Lee Tourneau, who was clearly supposed to be a complex character, gave off so many bright red warning flags that Iggy’s blindness to his faults was a little hard to believe.
The one exception to the rule of flat characters came in the form of Iggy’s brother, Terry. Throughout the book, Terry showed a level of character growth that far exceeded any other character in the story–Iggy included. He had compassion not only for his brother, but also for other characters in the story. This included Glenna, who was repeatedly treated poorly by both Iggy and Lee. Terry was also the only character in the book who was able to fight off the influence of Iggy’s horns, symbolizing that he was the only character in the book who was able to resist the pull of the devil and do the truly good thing.
In fact, you could almost call Horns Terry’s story, rather than Iggy’s story. It’s Terry, not Iggy, who grows throughout the novel, and it’s Terry who is given a shot at redemption and a happy ending when the novel concludes.
This is where the book was really different from the movie. The movie’s version of Terry was impossible to like, shown as a drugged-out nobody who cared only for himself, whereas the Terry in the book made some questionable choices but ultimately tried to do the right thing and take care of his little brother.
Beyond Fire and Brimstone
Horns went beyond your usual novel about the torments of hell. Although there were some allusions to the traditional devil, including the use of a pitchfork and Iggy’s eventual ability to communicate with snakes, Hill bypassed the seven layers of Hell made popular by Dante and managed to create something truly unique.
For these reasons, I’m giving Horns a 7/10. It was a captivating read, and I’m glad to have read it. However, flat characters and the poorly-conceptualized treehouse of the mind prevented this book from making it onto my list of all-time favorites.