Associations are hard to shake. Just ask actor Daniel Radcliffe, a.k.a. "The Boy Who Lived," the kid in the cupboard under the stairs, Mister Harry Potter. Shaking the image of himself as the cinematic incarnation of J.K. Rowling's boy wizard would require more than a bit of boldness, which seems exactly what he's trying to do with the on-screen version of Joe Hill's Horns. I'm sure Hill himself understands the struggle. The son of chart-topper Stephen King, he dropped his last name in order to be taken seriously as a writer.
Horns begins with a dead girl. A year has passed since beautiful Merrin Williams was raped and murdered down at the old foundry, and everyone thinks her longtime boyfriend Ignatius Perrish committed the crime. The unrelenting suspicion and loss of his beloved have turned Ig's life into the proverbial living hell. He didn't do it. He has no idea who might have. He can't conceive of a way to move on with his life. So one night gets besotted at the place of Merrin's murder, urinates on a figurine of the Virgin Mary, and wakes the next morning with a savage hangover -- and a pair of horns sprouting from his skull. Yup, horns, just like the sort you'd see on Pan or Mr. Tumnus. Ig can't precisely remember what else he did during the night, but he knows one thing: The horns make anyone near him divulge their darkest desires and reveal to him their wrongdoings with just a touch of skin upon skin. As Ig skulks through a town where everyone hates him, he begins to formulate a plan. He's going to use the horns to find out who murdered Marrin and make him pa.
I truly admire Hill's desire to make his own way in the writing world. Still, you can't help but see some of his famous father's influence in Horns. Hill goes after pop-Catholic conceptions of Christianity will all the gusto and depth of a college sophomore worshipping at the altar of /r/atheism. Near as I can figure, the main thematic thrust goes something like this: The church thinks sex and booze are bad (plus God has that whole "existence of evil" thing to explain), but the devil likes to party, so Old Scratch is obviously the good guy and Yahweh is an impotent geezer if he even exists. Yeah, hook a turbine up to Milton's grave and his outraged spinning could provide a clean form of energy for years to come. Critiques just roll off the pen. Copulation wasn't the original sin, and theodicy has numerous answers to the problem of pain, and ...
Eh, never mind. You didn't come to Horns hoping for a systematic theology, did you? You wanted a page-tuning, pulse-pounding good read -- and that's exactly what you'll get.
While the book's themes might be weak, all the other elements of Horns stand tall as a century-old redwood. King's books have a reputation for bloat, and while Horns isn't exactly lean, you can tell that Hill has meticulously plotted and carefully characterized the whole thing. The trailer for Radcliffe's film version makes it out to be comedic horror, but the book is much more a portrait of love and loss, of extended suffering and rough justice. Hints of mystery, surreal fantasy, noir, and even literary fiction color the scary bits. And the ending, well, it'll make you neglect your pillow time. Sure, the religious stuff gets wonky, but with one exception, I can honestly say I enjoyed this outing with Hill more than any with his father.
(Picture: CC 2007 by philippe leroyer)