Horns, both the novel by Joe Hill and the movie based on that same novel, follow the story of Ignatius Perrish in the aftermath of the murder of his longtime girlfriend Merrin Williams. That’s… Well, beyond that is about where the movie and novel begin to diverge, as they both use the same background and characters to tell almost completely independent stories.
After a night of drinking and doing “terrible things”, Ig Perrish wakes up to find that he has grown horns. Not only has Ig grown horns, but he finds that people will tell him about their deepest, darkest secrets; the things they have done, the things they want to do, what they think about in the moments where they feel safest. This is the device that shapes every interaction that follows, both in the film and in the novel. This idea drives the character interactions between Ig and everyone around him; with his family, with his friends, with the family of Merrin, and with everyone around the town who comes into contact with him.
I must clarify that if you are like me and reach to ingest every form of media that a piece of entertainment occupies, you must (MUST) watch the movie first. The movie is many things, but the one that you will understand first and foremost is that it is a mystery; the premise of the first several acts of the film are the quest to find the person who actually killed Merrin (don’t worry, it is made clear early on that Ig didn’t do it; that is hardly a spoiler at all). That is in stark contrast to the novel, where the killer’s identity is revealed almost casually very early on. This is a function of the fact that the film and the book aimed to tell two very different stories, that the writer and the director had two different ideas about what the horns that Ig has grown mean, and why I feel it was appropriate to review them in contrast to each other.
The movie, at its core, is about the murder; all of the set pieces revolve around it, all of the interactions occur not because of the horns but as a result of the murder. While the names of the characters are shared between the novel and movie, each person almost universally fills a slightly different roll in the film; Lee Torneau, a friend who has drifted away from Ig in the novel, plays both his best friend and attorney in the film. Merrin’s father, Dale, in the film plays a major roll in understanding the emotional state of both the town and the family after the murder, where in the novel he is hardly present.
As this is a review, I do have to mention that, with the exception of Daniel Radcliffe, the performances in the film are stiff and lackluster. The emotions are driven less by the subtle cues of humanity and more by shouting “I AM ANGRY!” or whimpering “I am sad.” Daniel Radcliffe, though, does deliver quite a performance; I am not the first to praise it, and I won’t be the last–aside from a couple of scenes that simply don’t work well with the idea of acting (how does one act out the idea of losing the love of your life, of finding out who did it? There are some emotions that, I believe, are too strong for acting to ever truly do them justice), Radcliffe captures every other facet of his character masterfully. Some parts, I did have to ask if it was even acting at all, as Radcliffe in his post Harry Potter days kind of looks like a sallow, sunken, almost sick human being full of the suffering of emotions that those outside could hardly understand. That, crossed with the semi-shaven, undernourished look of a hobo gives him what I believe to be the perfect look for this film!
The novel is not about the murder specifically, though the murder certainly happened. The novel is about what humans do in the face of something so impossibly horrible that it leaves mental scars. As I mentioned, the perpetrator of the horrible murder that sets the events in motion is mentioned early on, and while Ig takes this information and contemplates using it in a bid for revenge, that is not the primary point. Much of the novel takes place in flashbacks, not just to the night of the murder, but to character defining moments in each person’s life, the events that shaped each person, and the events that help define their reactions to each stimulus presented. None of the characters are two dimensional; they all have reasons to act how they act, and their actions are all defined by how they became who they are. While Ig is certainly the protagonist, and while most of the novel is told from a limited third person perspective attached to him (which is, oddly, exactly how Harry Potter was written. Maybe Daniel Radcliffe has a very limited literary scope?), there is a very, very large section of the book told from the perspective of Merrin’s murderer. One of the powers given to Ig by the horns is that he can see a person’s past by touching them, and this is the method used to extend the limited third person scope to other characters in the universe crafted by Hill. Personally, I enjoyed the idea; the writing style never has to change, it is still from Ig’s limited third person, but you are able to see what made the other characters who they are. The other thing is that this gives the author the ability to, without breaking stride, tell the same event from multiple points of view. The true masterstroke of this is that what seems almost cartoonishly evil when seen through the eyes of one character seems like an almost understandable course of action from the view of another.
To put it another way, no one is a two dimensional cutout of one simple trope in the novel. A character may seem simple and nebulously defined when they are introduced, but their deeper thoughts and emotions make sense not because Hill writes “THIS IS HOW THEY FEEL!” but because their entire backstory, the events that formed them, are laid bare for you to see. Even when the events are laid before you, Hill doesn’t explicitly tell you how the events formed who they are–you are left to make that discovery on your own. I won’t say it is subtle mastery of the art that is at work here, Hill is still early in his writing career (and I think is roughly 700 novels shy of his father still), but for an artist who is still clearly honing his craft, it is an enjoyable read.
The movie is definitely easier to digest; everything ties up nicely, there is a short epilogue that explains everything and closes each plot thread, and you are left at least mostly satisfied. Hill, in the novel, was having none of it! You are left with the slowly roiling ripples of everything Ig has done as they move to engulf more and more lives, even after the end of the novel. Don’t bet on absolute closure, and if you are a person who needs that, this is perhaps a book that will leave you hungry for more, with nothing to slake that desire. If you are a person who wants to contemplate the nature of humanity, the mysteries of the soul, and the idea of what is waiting for us at the end of all things, this is definitely a novel that you will enjoy.
I hadn’t read anything written by Hill before Horns, and Horns was only the second novel he has published. I can safely say I will be looking into his catalog going forward.