Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sympathy for the Devilish: A Review of Joe Hill's "Horns"

 In an attempt to enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview.

This review will look at Horns, a novel by Joe Hill, talented son of Stephen King. As is increasingly the case with popular YA fiction, a movie is in the works (Mandalay Pictures and Red Granite Pictures are making sure Horns comes soon to a theater near you, with Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe cast in the lead).

There will be spoilers.


Most people believe that Ignatius Martin Perrish raped and killed his girlfriend, Merrin. Ig didn’t do this, but since that tragedy he has steadily spiraled into chaos. He wakes up one morning after a drunken binge to discover horns growing out of his head. It makes a twisted kind of sense. The horns are just a visible reminder of what is arising deep inside. To make matters worse, when people get near him they reveal their most evil thoughts. He sees their history in a moment when they touch him, and it’s not pleasant.

He learns that his friends, family, priests, doctors, and policemen all secretly hate him, but they are hardly in a position to judge, They have their own terrible secrets. As Ig realizes that he has the power to influence them toward things they secretly want to do, he begins to embrace the hell within and use his power to create a world more to his liking.
“Now that he was used to it, he far preferred being a demon. The cross was a symbol of that most human condition: suffering. And Ig was sick of suffering. If someone had to get nailed to a tree, he wanted to be the one holding the hammer… If you were going to live in hell on earth, there was something to be said for being one of the devils. ”
This book’s language is coarse, its characters crude, and its message terrible. Did I say that bluntly enough? It's also extremely engaging. Mr. Hill is an accomplished writer, and he understands his YA crowd. If you have teens or work with them in some capacity, Horns is worth knowing about just so you understand the way in which this generation increasingly views the world. Trust me; it's unsettling.

 While there is a lot that could be said, I will focus on three primary issues in this book.

1) Horns acknowledges one of our deepest fears: deep inside, no one truly cares about us. When Ig comes in contact with his family after he grows the horns, they can’t help but tell him what they think of him:
  • His grandma: “I always thought there was something wrong with you.”
  • His mom: “I don’t want to hear about any of your problems…I don't want you to be my kid anymore.”
  • His dad: “I always thought you were a weird little shit.”
I was reminded of the actual families Maggie Stiefvater patterned her adult characters after in The Wolves of Mercy Falls. For many kids, family is not a happy word. If you want to know what kind of environment far too many kids experience every day, you will experience it vicariously here. It's not easy to read, but it's probably important to understand.

2) Horns takes place in a world where people are rotten. None of the authority figures are worthy of admiration or emulation. They have power without character or integrity. Unfortunately, Ig’s peers are no better. His friend Lee apparently saved him from drowning in what Ig believed to be an act of valor, but Lee is a lousy savior. Lee lies incessantly, likes music “to kill people to,” favors using violence on girls who don’t give him sexual favors, and likes to blow stuff up. Lee says of Glenna, a terribly insecure girl who numbly participates in her own self-destruction, that she “keeps me interested with the occasional [sex act]. It isn’t because she loves [them]. It’s because she doesn't love being lonely...”

Most women are just temporary distractions that have to earn the right to be cared for and loved. They are there to be conquered or used, not protected. Though Lee is the clear villain of the book, most of the guys in the story view women in much the same way. Ig is the exception before and while Merrin is alive, but once she dies he moves in with the tragically dysfunctional Glenna and misuses her as badly as Lee does. Speaking of Ig and Merrin, here's how Merrin describes the first time she and Ig met in church:
 “I was sitting there imagining a hundred more mornings, roasting in the sun in that church, dying inside one Sunday at a time while Father Mould blabbed away about my sins. I needed something to look forward to. Some reason to be there. I didn't just want to listen to some guy talk about sin. I wanted to do some myself. And then I saw you sitting there like a little priss, hanging on every word like it was all so interesting, and I knew, Ig, I just knew – that f******* with your head would present me with hours of entertainment.”
Uh, okay.  She’s a keeper! There were other things to like about Merrin, but the eager anticipation to sin is not usually on a list of qualities one looks for in a girlfriend. Perhaps that is why Ig later finds it easy to believe that she dumps him so she can sleep around. Rebellion is always cool until someone does it to you.

Ig was a good kid once, but now he's not. With Merrin gone, there is nothing between him and the devil that has always been waiting to manifest. As one reviewer noted, "Devilry doesn't come easy for him, but it's been a tough year, and he's a fast learner."

3)  Horns sends a very clear message: we are on our own. Ig’s very name suggest he is “un.” He’s the negation of God, goodness, justice, and morality.  He has a lot to say about the non-existent God with whom he is angry, but his message to a priest summarizes his thoughts well: “Do you know why God hasn’t answered your prayers? Because there is no God. Your prayers are whispers to an empty room. It’s all a lie. There’s never been anyone there.” At one point, Ig gives a speech that encapsulates his new-found philosophy of what a world looks like without God:
 “God saves – but not now, and not here. His salvation is on layaway. Like all grafters, He asks you to pay now and take it on faith that you will receive later. Whereas women offer a different sort of salvation, more immediate and more fulfilling…. The devil and woman have been allies against God from the beginning, ever since Satan came to the first man in the form of a snake and whispered to Adam that true happiness was not to be found in prayer but in Eve’s c***… 
      I see God now as an unimaginative writer of popular fictions, someone who builds stories around sadistic and graceless plots, narratives that exist only to express His terror of a woman’s power to choose who and how to love, to redefine love as she sees fit, not as God thinks it ought to be. The author is unworthy of His own characters… The devil knows that only those with the courage to risk their soul for love are entitled to have a soul, even if God does not. And where does this leave God…?  
    God, in His wisdom, feels no need to use His power to save anyone from a single moment of suffering, and in spite of his inaction He is celebrated and revered. … I do not claim that God is dead. I tell you He is alive and well but in no position to offer salvation, being damned Himself for His criminal indifference… The devil is anything but indifferent. The devil is always there to help those who are ready to sin, which is another word for ‘live.’ 
...He took the form of a snake to free two prisoners being held naked in a Third World jungle prison by an all-powerful megalomaniac. At the same time, he broadened their diet and introduced them to their own sexuality.”
In Mr. Hill's world, God sees great evil but does not care enough to intervene. The devil might not be able to solve the Problem of Evil either, but at least he has some skin in the game. He will help you indulge the pleasure of sinning as you navigate the hell that is this life. Meanwhile, women - or at least parts of them - offer an immediate and more fulfilling alternative salvation. This is hardly an ennobling message of human worth and dignity. Philosophically and theologically, the book is a hot mess.

When Ig and Merrin first fall in love, they find what they call a Treehouse of the Mind, a mystical treehouse that magically appears one day in a nearby woods. Ig finds a group of small figurines in the Tree House that apparently represent key people in his life, including himself. He replaces his own head with the head of a demon “who appreciated a man who knew how to burn a thing down.” Think of this as foreshadowing.

Ig becomes a being for whom fire is a friend. When Lee tries to kill him by setting him ablaze, the inferno was “how baptism was supposed to feel.” The God of water baptism has no apparent concern for His world. He could not or would not save Ig from pain. Neither can the devil, but Old Scratch is at least interested enough to give Ig the ability to indulge his plans for vengeance.

The story has what is supposed to be a happy ending when a burning, hellish Tree House magically appears again:
“Ig climbed through, into his new home, his tower of fire, which held his throne of flame. He was right; there was a celebration under way – a wedding party, his wedding party – and the bride awaited him there, with her hair aflame, naked but for a loose wrap of fire. And he took her into his arms, and her mouth found his, and together they burned.”

The inner front and back covers of the book quote a line from a Rolling Stones song about the devil: "Pleased to meet you; hope you guess my name." It wasn't too difficult. In Hornssays the LA Times, “we watch a devil learn how to be one” in a story that shows “respect for the tradition of Satan as anti-hero, tale-teller and trickster…fire and brimstone have never looked this good.”

Horns could have been a sobering morality tale about what happens when people give in to the devil inside. Instead, Mr. Hill has written a book that, while acknowledging the ubiquitous nature of evil, suggests that our hope is to be found in embracing our fallen, sinful nature. There's a light at the end of life's dark tunnel, but it's only fire for those who like to burn things down.


  1. Thanks for posting this review... I am a bit shocked by the content that passes for YA literature now. I remember reading YA literature in my younger years and I don't remember even one curse word. I'm sure they were out there, but nothing like this....

  2. This book caught me by surprise, and I've been reading quite a bit of YA lit lately. It's hands down the most offensive, crude, and hopeless book I've read (at least that targets a younger audience).

  3. It's not YA, it's something called New Adult, which targets 18-25 year olds. As such, it follows different rules. Before you start critiquing the tastes of the younger generation and their worldviews, do your research first.

  4. Thanks for your clarification, Nicole. I used the YA label because most of the YA book-to-movie lists I saw included Horns. I took their association at face value (note to self: double-check next time). It's perhaps worth noting that many in the publishing industry have yet to embrace the label. I'm curious, though: what did you think of the book itself? Do you disagree with my assessment of it (as well as its intended audience)? I would like to hear your thoughts...