Horns, by Joe Hill ****

hornsjoehillI have to start with three things the reader should know. Then I’ll get on with it.

First, if you are looking for Stephen King II, you won’t find it here. The horror genre is the only thing I can see to connect these two gents, besides DNA. Well, if we’re picky, they both choose New England settings all or most of the time. But this writer does not use his father’s voice or style.

Second, if you have deeply held beliefs that include supernatural events, beings, and/or places, including the possibility of a bad afterlife, you may be offended by this book. He is bold, and puts it right out there in the first few pages. If you’re thinking of buying it and it may or may not push your buttons, read the first chapter before buying, or look at the first few pages online. You’ll know right away. (A taste is in the quote below).

Last but not least, if like me, you have a genuine phobia of snakes, step aside. They didn’t show themselves till the last half of the book, and I was hooked by then. If this book had been out there ten or fifteen years ago, I would have had to give it up because of them, & it would have disappointed me, because the plot is engaging and also because I paid for the book. Once they show up, they show up a lot, in vivid detail. I skimmed where I could during their scenes and read the rest a little quickly, and I got through it without the nightmares that used to plague me.

Okay. So that’s out of the way. I will tell you, I like the guy’s writing. It isn’t seamless, doesn’t mesh fluidly like the finest artists produce; I found a couple of forced elements at the end, and there is a dream sequence that is way too long and that the writer leans on way too hard to explain the list of questions he’s piled up. That said, this is a very fun ride.

The plot feels original to me, perhaps because I have never seen anyone address this subject matter with wry humor. It is cynical yet engaging. Who hasn’t wondered what hell might be like, should it exist? “Hell” is the title of the first section, and we see it immediately. Here’s a sample from page 9, which is really the third page of the story itself. He is looking at a roadside memorial, the type you see along the highway where somewhat met with mortality and their loved ones have been drawn there. It is his sweetheart that has died, and the protagonist is hung over, physically altered (title), and he sees what has been left for his beloved:

“Someone—Merrin’s mother probably—has left a decorative cross with yellow nylon roses stapled to it and a plastic Virgin who smiled with the beatific idiocy of the functionally retarded.

“He couldn’t stand that simpering smile. He couldn’t stand the cross either, planted in the place where Merrin had bled to death from her smashed-in head. A cross with yellow roses. What a fucking thing. It was like an electric chair with floral-print cushions, a bad joke. It bothered him that someone wanted to bring Christ out here. Christ was a year too late to do any good. He hadn’t been anywhere around when Merrin needed Him.”

At some point, the reader must wonder… how much of his thinking is really him, and how much of it has to do with the growths on his head? I won’t tell you, but ultimately, Hill lets us know to some degree.

If there is an echo of any writer, it is that of Michael Chabon, who is quoted twice, once at the beginning of the book, and once later, where he uses a quotation from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union about guilt. (He does not cite the work, only its writer, but I recently read it and recognized it). There is some of Chabon’s playful language and the way that he teases us with the plot, but Hill is his own writer, and it’s just as well, because no one will ever be able to replicate what Chabon does. Were Hill to try, he would find himself kneeling at the feet of the master (Chabon, not the devil, LOL).

I loved this story, warts and all, and suspect that this writer will do some really fine things in the future. As an early literary effort, this is strong.

I should add that because I am not religious at all, nothing here that is said about God or Satan disturbs me; it may be an obstacle to others, but Hill is gutsy and true to himself in his writing, even if it costs him readers. The language is crafted skillfully, and I suspect it will remain so throughout his career.

In an age of virtually unchallenged censorship, it is refreshing to see a man tell his story the way he wants to tell it.

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