Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Horns by Joe Hill

For better or for worse, writers tend to marry writers — Joan Didion/John Gregory Dunne, Paul Auster/Siri Hustvedt, Margaret Atwood/Graeme Gibson, Stephen & Tabitha King. For better or for worse, the public spotlight will catch one spouse and pretty much eclipse the other (see above). If they have kids, odds are there will be a writer in the batch. And odds are they’ll attract only the smallest fraction of their parents’ readership.

Passionate readers tend to have ambivalent if not conflicted feelings about the progeny of their favorite authors. I’m sure it’s the same for the kids. Most kids roll out from under their parents’ shadow with some hope that they won’t be compared too closely to the tree they just fell from. And most readers will finish these books and think, “Sorry, kid: but your dad got to me first.”

I was curious about Joe Hill, however, because his dad — Stephen King — never quite got to me. Of the half-dozen King books I've read, I’m partial to the shorts in Hearts In Atlantis. In fact, the title story neatly embodies the strengths and weaknesses of his larger novels, with its compelling start, killer second act and dreary auto-pilot finale. More consistent than this structural predilection, however, is the “Stephen King” tone of voice, which his fans adore but, sad to say, grates on me. I get the impression King writes best when he’s pissed off. By the halfway mark that tone has nudged me into a similar state, and I'm usually happy to leave the book alone.

So I mean it as a compliment when I say I find Joe Hill’s tone to be gentler and more beguiling. Make no mistake, however: with Horns (A), Hill beats a path familiar to readers of his father. The aptly named Ignatius Perrish (a fool who is the butt of a terrible cosmic joke, suffering multiple deceits and a seemingly fore-ordained fate) wakes up with a pair of horns growing out of his forehead, and equally inexplicable powers. If his life sucked before — and it did: his former girlfriend was raped and murdered and he remains the chief suspect — it very much looks like it is on the fast track to some place much darker.

In fact, Perrish’s metamorphosis acts as the catalyst that reveals the banal truths behind most of the terrible mysteries plaguing him, except for the Big One: where the hell is God while all this horrible stuff is going on? Ig arrives at an answer of sorts, one that nudges him out of his Gregor Samsa-like state of torpor and on to settling what scores he can.

Final Verdict:
Hill’s “nothing up my sleeve” approach to the horror genre is understated and surprisingly pleasant. Speed-reading quotient: the first 45% of the book (i.e., the set-up) — the exact reverse of his father’s work. Hill has me curious to see what he comes up with next.


yahmdallah said...

I'd forgotten you don't like the King! Oh well. He does seem to be one of those binary ones - love'em or hate'em.

"Horns" is one of my recent abandonments. The misery and the goo were just too thick for me to carry on. Put another way, the writing didn't put me off, just the topic and the execution thereof.

Whisky Prajer said...

The irony! I'd been mulling over my use of "pleasant" was appropriate, but the more I thought about it the more I wondered if I was the right guy to review any horror book at all: the vast majority of them just don't strike me as being "horrific." Not that I'm incapable of horror, mind you. Get me going on a few non-fiction titles and I won't be able to fall asleep for weeks.

Joel said...

I was recently talking with some friends about Stephen King. I'm pretty luke warm myself (I agree with your assessment of his writing style.) But my friend said, "You've got to understand what it was like to discover Stephen King when you're 14 and in this conservative environment. It just completely blows you away."

That may be the difference. I didn't start reading Stephen King until I was in my late 20s, read a couple books, and largely decided I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. But I can only imagine what these books would have been like to read at 14.

And in talking with Stephen King nuts, it does seems to me that almost all Stephen King Fans get hooked young.

Whisky Prajer said...

Curiously enough I never read a Stephen King book when I was an adolescent -- or so I thought. When I was 14 or so I read a book called The Long Walk, which completely blew me away. I tried to press it on anyone who'd listen, and usually got ridiculed for my troubles. It was written by some guy named Richard Bachman. I didn't find out he was King until I was almost 30. I'm sure I would've plowed through the entire library at the time, if I'd only known.

yahmdallah said...

I think it also depends on the Stephen King that you start with, and the less you know about it the better. "The Shining", "The Stand", "The Dead Zone" and "Misery" are great books any way you slice it. There are other good ones like "Salem's Lot", "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon", "The Green Mile", "The Dark Half", and "The Tommyknockers".

That said, "The Shining" is still his masterpiece. If you've not read that, do give that one a try. Persevere until the first weird thing happens at the hotel.

And, like David Foster Wallace, you have to like the way he lays down the words.

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks, Y-man. Of the bunch, the two I'm most likely to seek out are probably The Shining, 'cos it's clearly very close to the author's heart, and Salem's Lot, 'cos I have grade 12 memories of the cig-smokin', trash-talkin' ... you know, that girl ... carrying that paperback around.