When Ig Perrish wakes up after a night of drunken self-pity, he finds a pair of enormous horns sprouting from his forehead.
This is only the first in a series of uncomfortable transformations: people share their darkest secrets with him, he can flawlessly imitate other voices, snakes gaze at him longingly and there's even a bit of awkward fire-breathing.
The demonization (literally) of Ig Perrish is only the latest thing to go wrong for him. Ig's been the town outcast for a year - ever since his girlfriend was found raped & murdered on the edge of town. Merrin had just dumped Ig (in public), so the popular sentiment has varied between 'string him up' and 'set him on fire first'.
Ig quickly discovers that the horns (and everything that goes with them) aren't a full-on curse, as much as they are a mixed blessing. With their eerie, mind-altering abilities, it doesn't take him long to discover the truth behind Merrin's death. The challenge, however, is in what he can do about it.
In Horns, Joe Hill writes a deliciously & aggressively blasphemous book. The town's stockpile of good Christians (including the pastor) are quickly revealed as unpleasant hypocrites. The role of God and prayer are challenged from start to finish - with Ig repeatedly reaching the same conclusion: while God is an absentee parent, the Devil's got humanity's best interests at heart. Perhaps the high point is Ig's own sermon on the mount - at the moment he accepts his fate, he declaims his new vision to an audience of snakes. The speech is tender and hilarious (the Devil is pro-Love and anti-polyester).
But the sympathy for the Devil shtick isn't where Hill's true daring comes into play. In Ig, Joe Hill has created an omniscient, omnipotent, invulnerable protagonist. And, yet Horns is neither boring nor predictable. Just because Ig knows everything doesn't mean he's put it all together - he's got the power of the Devil, but the mind of an ordinary guy. The mystery is unravelled one tantalizing piece at a time, culminating in a sequence of genuine surprises and revelations - and one hell of an explosive climax.
Horns is an absolutely brilliant piece of work that snared me from the first pages. Initially in awe ("How could this possibly keep up for an entire book?"), I was very quickly absorbed in Ig & Merrin's story. For a book that stars the Devil, this is a very human drama. And for a second novel, Hill's already written his name in the (five-pointed) stars.