Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill
Horns by Joe Hill

Every single one of us has got the devil inside, and nobody knows it better than Ignatius Parrish the narrator of Joe Hill’s novel Horns. Ig wakes after a night of sorrowful drinking to find he’s grown horns on top of his head. Worse yet, the horns bring out the worst in everyone Ig encounters.

Ig isn’t a very popular guy. Most everyone in town suspects he murdered his girlfriend, Merrin — even his own parents. The horns give people permission to tell Ig how they really feel about him. It isn’t pretty.

But Ig’s horny head is a blessing, too. The horns allow him to get to the truth behind Merrin’s murder and mete devilish justice out on the guilty.

Horns has excellent plot and pacing, especially in the first half of the novel. Paired down to its bare bones Horns is a balls-out revenge novella, something straight out of EC comics. But Hill adds depth through flashbacks and character development. Merrin and Iggy get fleshed out nicely, and their story takes on the homespun sweetness of a high school romance.

Hill visits delightfully dark places in Horns. (How fun would it be to push your annoying grandma’s wheelchair down a hill and into a fence?) Hill brings some metaphor to the mayhem, too.

It was something, the way the wheelchair picked up speed, the way a person’s life picked up speed, the way a life was like a bullet aimed at one final target, impossible to slow or turn aside, and like the bullet, you were ignorant of what you were going to hit, would never know anything except the rush and the impact.

Hill finds ways to weave thoughtful contemplation into his revenge narrative.

Pi is an irrational number, incapable of being made into a fraction, impossible to divide from itself. So, too, the soul is an irrational, indivisible equation that perfectly expresses one thing: you.

Even though Iggy’s gone demon, he hasn’t forgotten what it means to be human.

I want you to remember what was good in me, not what was most awful. The people you love should be allowed to keep their worst to themselves.

Some of the symbolism in Horns is a little heavy-handed (Ig’s father and brother are both accomplished “horn players”), but overall Hill brings the story home in fine style. While Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box staggered to the finish line, Horns is a fiendish read with a satisfying conclusion.

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20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew good.

Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.

“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.

“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.

“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”

“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”

Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.

The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.

The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.

Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.

“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”

Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.

“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”

Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.

If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:

  • It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
  • It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
  • It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.

Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.

Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.

Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.

Book Review: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Book Review: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20thCentruyGhostsCover
Check out my review of Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts.

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, andSkeleton Crew good. Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces. (read full review … )

Throttle by Joe Hill & Stephen King

Throttle by Joe Hill and Stephen King.
$.99 Kindle Single

Throttle is two master storytellers (King 2 and King 1) cutting loose and going balls-out, the way the father and son motorcycle team do in the story. Available as a Kindle single for $.99, Throttle is inspired by Richard Matheson’s classic screenplay, “Duel,” but its style owes a lot to Elmore Leonard’s fast-paced westerns.

The “throttle” here is not only the mechanism that delivers fuel to an engine, but the way parents sometimes feel when their kids screw up — you want to throttle ’em! This is a lean tale, but there’s still some meat; father/son relations, lives shaped by major disappointments and tiny triumphs, and the ever-stretchy bonds of love. But all of that is secondary to the action.  Throttle is a thrill ride that King and Hill keep as fun and punchy as a punk rock anthem.