I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but bookstores like to segregate the genres. In their minds there are such irreconcilable differences between Jack Ketchum and Jack Kerouac that geographic and physical borders must be erected. Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy sometimes get their own sections, are sometimes lumped together, but are almost always separated from the confusingly named “Fiction” section. If you’re a real romanticist and lover of genre, like I am, this probably pisses you off. Not only is it a pain to figure out where the author you’re looking for is placed, but he or she may even have their oeuvre split between two or more sections.
When it comes time for Joe Hill’s second novel Horns to be moved from the “New in Hardcover” table, it will probably give some poor schmuck a real headache when he has to decide what sector of the store to put it in. What will it be pal? Horror? There is certainly some of that, with the devil and the snakes and the head explosions and whatnot. Fantasy? Well there are certainly some moments of Gaiman-esque whimsy. Wait, it gets even more complicated because then there are those lengthy portions where nothing supernatural happens for 50 pages at a stretch and we are given strong, well written and believable characters taking on tough questions. *Gasp* Do we put this in the high-fluting “Fiction” section?
I say that, not because I’m thinking like the enemy and claiming that Horns has more legitimacy to be in the no-genre-allowed “Fiction” section of the store, but because it really is a textbook case of genre’s being so crossed and blended that they cease to exist.
As with most books, to summarize is to spoil. So here’s the pitch in as few words as possible. Our hero, Iggy, goes on a bender, wakes up with devil horns and the power to reveal people’s darkest desires and secrets. He must use said power to find and bring to justice the person responsible for the murder of his childhood sweetheart/love of his life, Merrin.
Even though it is written by a man, the main characters are men, and the reader is never privy to Merrin’s perspective, in thinking about the novel I can’t help but approach it from a feminist reading. Almost the entirety of the novel’s catastrophes stem from the men’s inability to communicate with Merrin. They think they can somehow read her mind, rationalize her actions without actually consulting her on the matter, and it leads to tragedy violence and heartbreak, not to mention satanic mutation.
The story is told by alternating between Iggy’s “be-horned” adventure in the present and a series of flashbacks and perspective changes. It is these flashbacks that provide the emotional core of the novel, and it is Hill’s acute understanding and gift when it comes to portraying the young male psyche that lends credence to the novel’s more fantastic elements. Emotional without being sentimental, realistic without being oppressively melancholy–Hill is a dude who knows what’s what.
Hill garnered a lot of well earned praise for his first novel, Heart Shaped Box, and in my opinion he deserves even more for Horns. I don’t know if I could call it his best work without hesitating (he also writes the superb comic series Locke & Key and his short stories are pretty great as well) but it is certainly worth a read for anyone who likes fiction…regardless of what section of the store you find it in.