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Book World: Victor LaValle reviews 'Horns' by Stephen King's son Joe Hill

By Victor LaValle
Saturday, March 27, 2010; C01

HORNS

By Joe Hill

Morrow. 370 pp. $25.99

Nobody likes Ignatius Perrish. Not even his mom and dad. The young man at the center of Joe Hill's new novel, "Horns," has a hard time finding anyone who thinks well of him. Even his wheelchair-bound grandmother loathes him. But what makes life truly terrible is that these people won't stop telling Ignatius how much they hate him. The first time the poor guy's grandma sees him, she says, "When I look at you, I want to be dead." It seems as if everyone thinks Ig is the Devil. Which, actually, he is.

How do we fight evil? It's a question much older than the written word, but one that Joe Hill tackles with surprising amounts of invention and a truly winning sense of humor. This prize-winning writer started publishing short stories more than a decade ago, but a year before the release of his first novel, "Heart-Shaped Box" (2007), the news finally broke that his real name is Joseph Hillstrom King. As the older son of horror master Stephen King, Hill wanted to make sure people read him on his own merits; for years even his agent and editor didn't know the truth.

The family in his new novel wants nothing to do with their son. Ignatius is hated by his parents, his grandmother, the local priest, the cops and nearly everyone else in town whose path he crosses. He's the prime suspect in the murder of an angelic young woman named Merrin Williams. She and Ig were high school sweethearts. They even fell in love in church. But when Merrin turned up raped and murdered, all evidence pointed to Ig as the culprit. And nobody doubted he'd done it. In a truly heartbreaking touch, even Ig's parents, wealthy enough to get him a powerful lawyer, never had faith in his innocence. They get him acquitted but now don't want him around. And they can't help but tell him so.

So what's with all this honesty? Why can't Ig's folks do as the rest of us do and pretend we like our family? They can't. When people are around Ig, they are compelled to tell him the unvarnished truth, admit their worst impulses and most shameful secrets. On the day the novel begins, Ig wakes up and finds people can't stop confessing. Coincidentally, that's also the day he discovers he's growing horns. And his skin can change colors. Along the way he even acquires a pitchfork.

So is he becoming what the world believes him to be? Or does his transformation have another cause? From the start, he swears he didn't kill Merrin. When he was a man, he didn't have the power to learn the truth, but now, of course, his neighbors can't hide anything from him.

If all this sounds a little wacky, that's because it is. Ignatius Perrish is turning into a demon while trying to solve a heinous crime. Imagine Colombo in a devil's red cape. Thankfully, Hill is confident enough to commit seriously to this premise but also poke a little fun at his story along the way. There are comic references everywhere, from the devil in a blue dress to an almost mandatory Rolling Stones allusion. Hill has already proved himself a leading light of fantastical writing in the 21st century, but what makes "Horns" such a pleasure is that he avoids the seriousness that can pervade books meant to be spooky. He understands that horror readers can have fun, even laugh, and that makes the scary parts more effective.

If there's a fault in this novel, it's that not much actually happens. Ig wants to understand his transformation, as well as to track down Merrin's murderer, but he doesn't really do much more than sit around and think about these problems. Some of the most compelling scenes occur in flashbacks, but the present can be a little static at times.

Nevertheless, "Horns" remains compelling because, on top of Hill's humor, the ideas are so interesting. For all the ways this is a commercial book -- the good guys and the bad guys are pretty clearly defined; redemption is a foregone conclusion -- there's a wonderfully cockeyed idea at the book's center, one that's also much older than the written word. Sometimes, if you want to do God's work, you need the Devil to get it done.

LaValle's most recent novel, "Big Machine," has just been released in paperback.

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