I hate to think that I’m falling into a rut, but once again I find myself on a Wednesday getting ready to blog about a book that I finished the Friday before, and once again the book in question is a horror novel, and happens to be written by a member of a certain famous Maine writer’s family. Rut or not, it won’t last, as the book I’ve moved on to in the mean time is neither written by Stephen King of a relative, nor likely to be finished by Friday.
So, Stephen King’s son Joe has had a few books published, and while I will probably go to my grave never having read his novel Heart-Shaped Box because the title is a Nirvana reference (and my feelings about that particular 90’s cultural legacy are oh-so well-known) I thought the premise of his latest, Horns, was worth checking out. In short (or as short as I can make it because it gets pretty twisted) it’s about a guy named Ig who wakes up one morning with devil horns growing out of his forehead, and with this physical transformation comes certain powers and abilities which are reminiscent of the Devil His Own Self, although perhaps more the folkloric version of Old Scratch than the Miltonian version of Lucifer the fallen angel (though we get elements of both, and more). Some of the powers are physical, like a fireproof body and the ability to regenerate damage via flames and blazing breath. But others are more mental: people feel compelled to confess their secret sins and shameful desires to Ig, and he can read minds when he makes physical contact with someone, and to a certain extent he can control others’ actions as long as what he wants them to do is something they want, too, even if they’ve buried the want in the deepest darkest corners of their soul. The physical powers are there primarily to create a higher-stakes action-movie plot in the book’s climax; the psychological powers are really what the book is about.
I use this blog as a clearinghouse for my thoughts and reactions about the pop culture I consume, and it works pretty well as far as it goes, but as I was making my way through Horns I found myself wishing at various points that I was in a book club and discussing it with real live other people. Hill is basically doing an in-depth examination of the big concepts of personified evil and the nature of evil in the universe and the representations of the devil in art (high and low) and justice and vengeance and punishment and rational cosmology and all that, all through the lens of the devil. And sometimes he forces it a bit. When Ig raids the fridge at his parents’ house, what does he find? Deviled eggs, of course. And how much better are they than whatever he might have eaten at his own apartment? 10 times better? 100 times better? 666 times better, of course, of course. And while I rolled my eyes with a world-weary “I see what you did there, Joe” every time, I was curious what other people might think – if it worked for them, if it bugged them, if they even noticed.
And then again I wondered what other people would make of the bigger themes in the book. An examination of what a human being with the powers of the Devil might do could be interesting enough in and of itself, but Hill grafts that high-concept onto a murder mystery of sorts. Ig’s girlfriend Merrin was brutally murdered, and Ig himself was the prime suspect though the case was unsolved and untried. There are intimations that maybe Ig really did do it and doesn’t remember (thanks to his tendency to black out at the tail end of drunken binges) and his physical transformation into a demonic figure is just another manifestation of his steady descent, BUT there are also intimations that Ig is innocent and can use his newfound unholy powers to finally solve the mystery of who killed his girlfriend, and (maybe more importantly) why. Most mystery stories rely on scientific reconstruction, deduction, and knowing whose story to believe, and even then often the best answer that can be reached is to what happened, not why; Ig’s mind-reading ability makes for a nice narrative trick that allows certain things to be presented, as the story unfolds, as TRUTH, brooking no doubt.
Of course that sets up a stark contrast between questions like “Why was Merrin killed?” (which ends up answered, actually answered several times over in increasingly revelatory ways) and “Why did Merrin have to die?” (which, it should go without saying, has no answer) For all the plot twists and turns, and all the supernatural comeuppance, there are larger issues which are never resolved.
(Forgive me a longish tangent here, while I’m on the subject of comeuppance, while I once again devote some space to my own bloodthirstiness as an audience member. Another one of Ig’s devil-powers is the ability to command snakes. Hill tosses out a Chekovian pronouncement by Merrin’s murderer at about the two-thirds mark wherein he admits to having a deep phobia of snakes. So it’s a given that snakes will figure in the murderer’s demise, and they do … or more accurately one does. The murderer ends up stabbed repeatedly and, before he can bleed to death, chokes on a single snake which Ig commands to crawl down the murderer’s throat. Striking and horrific, sure, but weirdly not enough for me. Because Ig is shown with a whole satanic congregation of snakes following him around at various points. And Hill gets inside the murderer’s mind deeply enough that there is no reasonable reader reaction for him except utter revulsion and a desire to see gruesome punishment. I honestly expected the murderer to drown in a pit full of snakes or something equally over the top. But that’s me; hi, I’m bloodthirsty, I believe we’ve met.)
Hill goes to great pains to show that Ig and Merrin and their families are really good people, in all the senses that matter. They’re all kind, they all go to church, they all volunteer with the church, and none of them are hiding evil secrets which would undermine their essential goodness (so long as you more or less subscribe to the same rock-n-roll-heaven system of morality that I do, wherein teenage sex and drinking and smoking are not exactly mortal sins). And yet they all suffer horribly, Merrin losing her life and everyone else losing Merrin, for no discernable reason. By contrast, the murderer is mentally unhinged, possibly because of a childhood accident that resulted in brain damage, but the accident is random. The hand of God is nowhere to be found in anything that happens. Ig’s spontaneous development of exactly the right powers to ultimately solve Merrin’s murder and punish her murderer notwithstanding, the whole book is a pretty convincing case for the non-existence of God. And, again, I find myself wondering what other people would take away from it all.
My biggest takeaway was a line in the middle of the book that’s more or less a throwaway, but which I think kind of gets at the central knot of “What’s the whole point, then?” If you break down the notion that everything happens to serve some higher purpose until it ceases to make any sense, then what you’re left with in the absence of a higher purpose is everything being self-contained. It’s possible for there to be neither a heaven nor a hell waiting on the other side of death, and for life and what we do with it to matter, just in and of themselves instead of as things that will keep us either alive and happy in God’s good graces in this lifetime or earn us our way into some kind of reward afterwards. Anyway, at one point Ig meets a random, elderly shopkeeper who confesses that he’s tired of taking care of his wife with Alzheimer’s, and sometimes he fantasizes about pushing her down the stairs so that he can move to Florida to be with another woman. This fantasy is somehow more palatable to the man than the thought of putting his wife in a home and leaving her, because the latter would be a betrayal of their “til death do us part” vows, and a much greater sin. Ig uses his diabolic mind control to convince the old man that he is getting a phone call from the other woman in Florida, and in her voice Ig convinces the man to go ahead and put his wife in a home. Because if he doesn’t, he’s either going to die himself – miserably and alone, and soon – or he’s going to snap and murder his wife. Putting his wife in a home and trying to get a little bit of happiness out of what’s left of his life is the third (and best) option, even if it is a sin, because so is murder and so is utter, irredeemable misery. “Pick the sin we can both live with,” Ig urges in the other woman’s voice. Of course the man agrees, because he’s being hypnotized by the Devil His Own Self, but I think that argument would work pretty well on me without supernatural force behind it.
(Not that I would ever leave my wife, and supernatural-forces forbid she should ever get Alzheimer’s! Just in general – everyone sooner or later faces a situation where it seems, based on what they’ve been told all their lives, that whatever choice they pick, it’s going to be wrong. In which case you pick the sin you can live with, and get on with the living while you’ve got a life to live. I can think of worse advice.)