The professional wrestler known as Kane – who was once, incidentally, a fellow student of literature – cut a promo in 2010 promising to replace his more illustrious ‘brother’, the Undertaker, as “the devil’s favourite demon.”
Devil in the details? Check. Luck of the devil? Devil in a blue dress? Check and
The premise is suitably high-concept: Ignatius Perrish’s girlfriend is brutally murdered, he’s the prime suspect (his drunken alibi does not sound convincing even to him), and the police lets him off due to lack of evidence. Almost an year later, he wakes up hungover with tiny horns beginning to poke out of his forehead, and sets off on a supernatural quest for answers. Possibly revenge.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel – and I suppose its most divisive one – is the author’s complete inability to maintain an even tone.
Scenes of nightmarish brutality are offset by segments straight out of some smart childhood sitcom; morally ambiguous gallows humour clashes with satire and theological debate worthy of a much better book. There were multiple occasions where I found myself laughing moments after something horrible had happened, and then feeling vaguely barbaric for not keeping a straighter face.
And the damndest part is, it still works.
Hill’s masterstroke lies in making the protagonist a reluctant participant. Ig simply refuses to see himself as the driving force behind the story; his personality is muted and somewhat repressed to begin with. Subsequent events pry his fingers off the edge, so to speak, and send him hurtling down the plot.
All of this makes his gradual transformation a rare pleasure to behold, as the horns slowly dig their way out of (and deeper into) his head with each fresh revelation. The narrative voice also gets snarky at unexpected junctures,
“He had other concerns at the moment. They were growing out of his fucking head.”
so we’re not too surprised by the realization that the character going into the denouement is not the one we met at the beginning.
It was also a pretty smooth move to name the protagonist Ignatius: the historic parallels are subtle enough not to intrude, but add an extra layer for the more jobless reader. It also has the added benefit of giving Iggy a two-letter nickname: in a novel that predominantly follows one character, the interchangeable Ig and he let Hill play around with rhythm and pacing without having to deviate much.
The third party in the central triangle of murderer-murdereé-foil is the most enduring part of Hill’s creation; I have already called something worthy of a better book once in this review, so it serves me right to shut up now.
Suffice it to say he’s the one variable that leaves me curious about the cinematic adaptation even after knowing the plot.
A conceit this tricky would be near-impossible to play out flawlessly, of course. I still wince to think of the most gruesome twist being followed almost immediately by the crowning flashback in Ig’s love story.
Hill’s unsteadiness around dialogue also recurs, mostly in scenes involving the dead girlfriend. He veers close to oversimplifying her at times, although she still manages to come across as a lively and interesting character whose passing hangs heavier as the narrative progresses.
We have already discussed Hill’s preoccupation with movies elsewhere; Horns situates itself within the context of novels rather than film (including a nod to Stephen King’s Carrie), but the book itself is a succession of brightly etched moments that read like a screenplay for the mind.
There are plotholes you could drive a car through (which is exactly what happens at one point) and the ligaments between the meatier scenes don’t always connect properly, but complaining about that is kind of like saying the special effects on the first Terminator were ineffective: you know that the Schwarzenegger getting banged up is an imperfect rubber replica, but that doesn’t make the movie’s gradual reveal of its titular monster any less fascinating.
In the end, Hill’s manic energy and Ig’s demonic metamorphosis carry you through. There are enough deft touches to keep you hooked, and the ending is arresting enough for you to forgive the writer one last dance with the devil (which is not the actual metaphor he uses there).
You can practically see the screen fading as the credits begin to roll, a funeral beat swelling to the accompaniment of horns.