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Horns by Joe Hill

By way of an opening, let’s speculate on the nature of human nature. For those of you of a Freudian bent, we might distinguish between the id, ego and super-ego. There are both more complex models and rather more straightforward explanations of how minds work but, at their heart, there’s a common view. When we talk about the mind, we are not talking about the physical brain in which thought occurs. We are referring to the identity of the individual. Identity is created by processes in the brain and expressed through the behaviour we observe. Because we cannot look inside each other’s heads and “hear” the thoughts, the only way we can judge the character of the people we see is through inference. So, we might see behaviour suggesting a calm or rational mind. Or we might collect impressions suggesting a more primitive or cruel mind. Albeit in a crude way, Morbius probably offered a correct psychological insight in Forbidden Planet when he said the Krell were exterminated by “monsters from the id”. Like the Krell, we all have diabolical impulses lurking in our unconscious. Most of the time, we suppress or control these urges. When we fail, we are deemed sociopathic or psychotic. In other words that we have no empathy or we have somehow stepped outside the boundaries set in ordinary people’s socialisation — we have become detached from the prevailing social reality.

So, Horns by Joe Hill takes us into the simple view of the mind. Suppose we have a good part and a bad part. Left to ourselves, we reach some kind of accommodation between these parts on the spectrum from saint to devil. But if we should come under the influence of an outside force, it might tip us positively one way or the other. This puts us squarely in the firing line of amor vincit omnia. When you see a book jacket with blood dripping down its face, you might assume it to be a horror novel. Well, think again. This is actually a touching story of the love between two people. Of course, there are moments every now and again when bad stuff happens. But we have to see the whole as a metaphor demonstrating the power of love to link people and, in the right circumstances, transcend time.

Not being one to offer too many spoilers creates a problem in this instance. Let’s just say we have an odd love triangle. The girl is the power for good and she is circled by two boys. One might become genuinely diabolical. The other had a head injury when younger which, having failed to lobotomise, left him merely sociopathic. Having this as the set-up means the situation is not going to work out “well” in the conventional sense.

This leaves me talking about the writerly stuff. This is definitely a young author’s book — in fact, the second published novel. You can see him winding himself up to run right up to the edge and then flail his arms desperately to keep his balance. There’s a real sense he was challenging himself to see how far he could push conventional taste, and having fun in the process. Indeed, for what is ostensibly a horror novel, there are a remarkable number of smiles. Being old and curmudgeonly, I rarely ever laugh. But I have to acknowledge Hill was trying really hard to be entertaining. This is the old porter-at-the-gate trick from Macbeth and other tragedies where you introduce humour into the midst of sadness to give temporary relief and then reinforce the return to the sadness.

I also record being a bit frustrated at the nonlinear storytelling. My own preference, wherever possible, is to start at the beginning and move steadily through to the end. Having started in the “present”, we are then switched back and forth to the past, apparently at random. Only when I was about three-quarters of the way through did the penny finally drop (and the reference to morse code finally became relevant). What I had taken to be rather an indisciplined approach was finally justified and I apologise to Mr Hill for thinking unkind thoughts.

I’m still less than convinced about the literal and metaphorical significance of the tree house. As a place in which, and through which, love can be celebrated and transcend time, I suppose it offers a kind of super-ego, helping our hero rise above his base instincts. Literally, it’s where the memories of her prove to be strongest. A practical control continually reinforced through the gold cross and chain so important to all three of them. Insofar as the point of the story is control or the lack of it, the sociopath grows up without any brakes on his development. Except, for a while, he patterns his behaviour on the hero. No matter that he’s contemptuous, he understands this is the way to get ahead in the world. The irony is that, no matter how much he desires the girl, neither she nor anyone else will ever have any real power over him. He’s impervious to others, their emotions and beliefs. The hero is potentially worse than the sociopath, but so in love with the girl he allows himself to be controlled. In a sense, the whole novel is triggered when he throws off the memory of her influence. Unconsciously, he realises this was a mistake, and the remainder of the book is a grail quest for those key lost memories.

There are also some amusingly blasphemous passages so, if you are one of these literal Christian types and easily shocked or offended, this book is not for you unless you turn the relevant pages fast enough to avoid catching any of the disrespectful references to the Lord and support for Satan.

I have probably made this sound a complicated book. In fact, you need not worry about any of this. Hill’s writing sets off at a quick pace and then slowly accelerates, challenging you to keep up. It’s great fun and one of the most interesting horror books of the year. I unhesitatingly recommend it.

Horns was shortlisted for the 2010 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

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