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.