In a few writing contests I’ve entered, the judges highlighted two criteria as the most important in how they evaluated fiction entries:
1. How good the story was (idea-wise)
2. How well it was told
In the last book I read, it became a lot clearer to me why they include that second criterion.
Horns opens with our hero, Ignatius Perrish (Ig to his friends), waking up after a black-out night of doing “terrible things” to discover he has sprouted devil horns. Worse, they are functional: anyone who sees them is compelled to confess to Ig the deepest secrets and worst deeds in their hearts, and to ask his permission to commit more sins. Ig realizes he can use his power to finally discover who raped and murdered his girlfriend, and avenge her death, and this becomes the driving plot of the book. To a lesser extent, he is concerned about how he developed the horns in the first place (the book takes a magical-realism approach for the most part, treating the horns as highly unusual phenomena, but not cause to really question sanity).
It’s an interesting premise, right? Here’s where it begins to fall apart for me: Joe Hill rams his elbow into your ribs on almost every page over the fact that his character is the Devil. Not only are there suddenly matches in Ig’s pocket, despite the fact that he doesn’t smoke, they are Lucifer brand. The girl he’s seeing leaves underwear on the floor? Devil-print. Hill takes every possible opportunity to have his character cast a shadow so he can point out yet again that the horns are the most distinguishing feature( well, obviously). By the time Ig finds himself in an old building and grabs a tool, you know it’s a pitchfork so long before Joe Hill gives his triumphant reveal that you wonder what took him so long to figure it out.
That’s the problem: Joe Hill doesn’t seem to believe in an intelligent reader (at least in this book—I’ve read Twentieth-Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box and I don’t remember either of those being like this). He barely believes in an average reader. The narrative style feels like it’s going for clever, but the content is way too soaked in devil imagery and nudges that feel more like slams (Ig’s brother makes a living playing the horn. The HORN. Get it?)
Disclaimer: We’re going to get into some spoilers. If, for whatever reason, you really want to read this book and be surprised, stop here.
For the rest, Horns failed to surprise me where I wanted to be surprised, and then completely mystified me where I should have gotten a straighter answer. Here’s what’s going on:
Unsurprised: Re: the murder of Ig’s girlfriend. You find out who did it. Really early, considering the discovery and revenge takes up so much plot time. Basically the first person who’s named is your guy, and he is a pretty garden-variety sociopath. The kind you’d expect to see on a weeknight crime show: good-looking, flat emotional affect, delinquent childhood, charismatic, methodical, delusion of grandeur (he believes he once performed a miracle), yada yada. Joe Hill probably watched The Dark Knight at some point, because this villain is even a blonde with one side of his face messed up. Feels a lot more like the guy you’re sure is going to be the one all book long, and then it turns out to be someone else, right? Like a twist? Nope. Face value, right here.
Surprised: On and off throughout the book, Ig wonders why these horns have appeared in the first place (as one would). In the end, the answer we’re looking for appears to be:
Fantasy time travel.
Yes. That is how Joe Hill, apparently with a straight face, is going to answer that question for us. Almost at the end of the book, Hill seems to suddenly realize that he never answered that question with us, and goes, “Hey–um—remember that time when Ig and his girlfriend were snuggling in that treehouse they never found again? And something was bumping at the trapdoor and scared the bejesus out of them? Yeah, turns out that something was Ig from the future! That’s cool, right? Also the treehouse is owned by the Devil. That oughta explain everything.”
I’m as confused as you are. I’ve read books like this before, where things are at least relatively normal (or at least consistent), and copped out in the closing pages with, “And it was a ghost! or “And it was time travel!” or “And it was all a dream!” and it almost never feels satisfying to me (A Christmas Carol and The Sixth Sense are the only two works I can think of that pulled off something like that successfully.) (Also, spoiler alert.)
I mean, overall the story was still interesting enough to keep my attention, and wasn’t terribly written (if it was all-out terrible, I wouldn’t have finished it. I don’t have the time to waste on truly crappy stuff). But I have to say, between rubbing my nose in the Devil and leaving me with a bewildering time-travel episode when I thought I was going to be given a more grounded explanation, I’ll give Horns a resounding: eh.