The plot of Joe Hill's new novel Horns is brutally simple. A year after the savage rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin, Ig Parrish awakens one morning to discover he's grown a pair of devil horns. As he seeks help for his troubling condition he encounters friends, family, and community members and, through a series of increasingly twisted interviews, realizes that everyone he meets is now compelled to tell him their darkest secrets. While never officially charged with Merrin's murder, Ig has long since been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion—a fact that has forced him to retreat to the fringes of society. As the horns cast their spell, however, he quickly discovers that it's not just the local cops who doubt his innocence, but his priest, his parents, and even his seemingly benevolent grandmother. More than that, the horns have given Ig the power to read a person's sins with the touch of his hand. It's this last gift that inadvertently reveals the true identity of Merrin's killer and sets Ig upon a path of devilish revenge.
Hill might have stopped there and coasted on the dark humor as one seemingly innocent character after another fails the test of Ig's horns. But the aforementioned setup is merely the framework for Hill to slowly unpack a much deeper story. Part one of the narrative has us wondering if Ig himself—with his frequent blackouts and propensity for violence—might be an unreliable narrator. Part two further explores the psychology of the main characters and—as the lack of humanity in those who pass for human is gradually revealed—contains a brilliant argument for Satan-as-Hero. In a story where so many pious façades cover corruption Hill dares the reader to embrace—as one section heading has it—The Gospel of Mick and Keith.
What grounds the story—indeed, what makes it a tour de force—is Hill's grasp of human psychology. Hill knows people and can often sketch a character's essence in a few pithy sentences. Ig's brother, Terry, a smarmy television personality, "used jokes like judo throws, as a way to deflect the energy of others from himself" (p. 80). Merrin, Ig observes, grows quiet when she worries. "She withdrew. She smoothed things with her hands—napkins, her skirt, his ties—as if by ironing out such minute items she could smooth the path to some future safe harbour for both of them" (p. 161). Merrin is actually a weak character—and of this more shortly—but even on the rare occasion where the insight is better formed than its vessel, Hill's talent for observing human nature fills the narrative with an undeniable authenticity. Some of the novel's best scenes are flashbacks to the characters' childhoods where we see the adults-to-come foreshadowed in acts of deceptively innocent horseplay. The sense of dread and inevitability as we recognize Merrin's killer in one of these passages is the story's beating heart.
If the novel has a flaw it is Merrin herself. Lacking any POV chapters of her own, Merrin often seems more like a boobie prize than a real person—a feeling only reinforced by a pivotal scene in which Ig and his friend Lee symbolically trade her cross—representative of her much lauded purity—between them. Like most bland, chaste maidens defined by their virginity, Merrin doesn't have much say in her fate. Her main role is to act as an agent of upheaval between her suitors, showing up to push the tension along, then conveniently disappearing. Ig's post-Merrin girlfriend, the tawdry Glenna, feels more real but she's clearly playing the whore to Merrin's angel and, while the motif certainly fits with the themes of the story, it is little disappointing that, even as Hill allows Ig to deliver a "fire sermon," condemning Man's tradition of pigeonholing Woman into one or the other of these roles, as an author he can't quite keep from sinning himself.
Oh well. The devil is nothing if not ironic.
As the son of Stephen King, Joe Hill knows that horror runs in the family. Take this concept, magnify it by twelve, and you may have some idea of the hair-raising you're in for once you open the pages of Douglas Clegg's southern gothic Neverland. The novel, a short and lyrically written nightmare about a family vacation gone catastrophically wrong, makes Horns, for all its introspective ugliness, look genteel by comparison.
The Jackson family—Mama, Daddy, sisters Missy and Nonie, baby Governor, and ten year old narrator Beau—arrive at Gull Island, prepared to slog through another summer vacation with the rest of their extended family—matriarchal Granny Weenie, Aunt Cricket, Uncle Ralph, and weirdo cousin, Sumter, a boy of Beau's age. All well and good. But we're firmly in the deep-dark-secrets-of-southern-families territory and, along with familial in-fighting, shockingly casual racism, and the inevitable three-o-clock hi-balls, the very landscape of Gull Island conceals stunning psychological and supernatural landmines. The darkest of these is a mysterious shack at the edge of the island which Sumter christens "Neverland." As the adults drink and quarrel in the ancestral home, the children flee to this less-than-savory locale and there begin to worship a demonic entity named "Lucy."
As in Horns, Clegg is interested in exploring the relationship between the devil and the subversion of accepted social norms. His "Lucy" (read: "Lucifer") is a singularly satanic creature, demanding animal sacrifice and inspiring the children to create a subversive version of the ten commandments (thou shalt steal and kill being chief among them) but she also shares a name with the famous evolutionary "missing link" (indeed, Sumter shortly produces "a tiny human skull" (p.35) with which to conduct his increasingly bizarre rituals)—certainly a figure of evil in the minds of Beau and Sumter's conservative clan. By worshipping Lucy the children attempt to distance themselves from their parents by every means possible: physical, spiritual, and philosophical. The tension between adult realities and childhood pretend stretches taut throughout the story—and eventually snaps as the rampant imagination of Neverland bleeds into the adult realm.
All very deep stuff—but first and foremost, Clegg wants to scare the pants off you. His evocative prose seethes with menace and rot—all amplified by the childlike wonder of Beau's first person narration. Here he describes his reaction to his first glimpse of Lucy, whom Sumter seems to have conjured out of the remains of some dead animals he keeps in a crate inside Neverland.
"Every cell in my body seemed to rebel against the image, and it was like hitting a sudden high fever or like a dream where I would fall from a great height down into the sea. I had no breath, I had no muscle, I had no life. All around me I smelled—not the sea, not the clean air—but the mustiness of rotting, damp leaves, of just turned earth, of places beneath the stones where creatures moved slowly on their dark paths." (p. 38)
One would think that such rich descriptions, coming so early on in the narrative, would leave Clegg with nowhere to go. But Clegg is only warming up. His concept of horror, while rooted in the theme of generational sin, quickly proves to be of the all-encompassing Lovecraftian variety: a force of universal scope that comes to permeate every aspect of the characters' lives. In a reverse of most horror novels, the more we learn of Lucy and Gull Island the scarier Neverland becomes, the illumination of painful secrets only making us wish we could turn the lights off again and resume our comfortable ignorance. The faint of heart would do well to stop reading around page 235 where the horror goes from merely dreadful to profoundly disturbing. Clegg spares no feelings, age groups or living creatures in his uncompromising vision and by the end the horror has taken on a near rhapsodic aura, as if, faced with a universe spinning out of control, the characters just might decide to embrace the chaos rather than stand against it. As grisly as it gets, the reader will probably feel the same. There's something grand and sensual in Clegg's writing that makes you want to follow him into hell even as your eyes are melting out of your head.
"My grandmother was like a silver reflection of a human being as she brought her face near mine," Clegg-as-Beau tells us, "like a mirror of fear that I could not quite make out in the darkness, but through which I could see the twisted image of the world surrounding me." (p. 234)
Take a look in Clegg's mirror and, much like Beau, your world might just twist permanently.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.