Little Sympathy for the Devil

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Title: Horns

Rating: 2 Stars

This had such a strong start. Ignatius Perrish is a child of privilege destined to do wonderful things when his girlfriend is horribly raped and murdered. He’s suspected but nothing can ever be proven. It’s now a year later and his life is in a tailspin.

Ig wakes up after a night of debauchery that he can’t really remember, but he vaguely recollects doing various possibly sacrilegious activities. Not feeling well, he looks into a mirror and sees horns growing out of his head.

Not only that, but these horns seem to compel the people that he talks to into revealing their deepest, darkest secrets. His current girlfriend confesses the need to binge on the donuts she’s eating. She confesses to performing oral sex on a mutual friend the previous night. He meets a nun who confesses that she just wants to steal money and run away and a priest who boasts about the grieving women that he has affairs with.

This is an interesting premise. If you were given the power to have people compel their deepest darkest confessions to, how would you make use of it? Would you capitalize on it? Would you try to drive people to their darkest sins or would you try to save them?

These are all interesting questions and probably would have been a great character study into motivations and abuse of power.

However, this is not that book. After spending a lot of time meeting characters and understanding their most secret motives, pretty much all of that knowledge is cast aside by Ig when his brother confesses that he knows that Ig’s best friend Lee killed Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin.

Ig pretty much immediately stops using the horn’s special powers and focuses on avenging himself on Lee. It becomes a duel to the death between Ig and Lee.

Lee, although fair haired and handsome, is clearly evil here. Ig, although he has grown horns, is purified by fire, and attracts throngs of snakes, is representing good.

I think that the book is trying to make a statement regarding the fact that the devil doesn’t necessarily exist in a purely Manichean world. There are times when the devil plays a necessary role and possibly even a moral role.

The problem here is that it just muddles all of this together. There is so much plot here. Merrin’s story and why she dumped Ig right before he left for London. Ig’s brother Terry and his budding television career. Lee and his relationship with his mother. Ig and Merrin’s idyllic time in a tree house. Lee and his relationship to an ambitious congressman. What actually happened the night of Merrin’s murder?

At this point, does anyone care?

The book really isn’t even that long to try to cover all of those many plots. In fact, the shallowness of the book almost has me convinced that it’s targeted at young adults. I went so far as to check this but it does not appear to be the case.

I’ve also read Hill’s previous works, Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2. Indeed, in both cases, they started off with strong premises but then I lost interest as the plots lost steam due to the weight of multiple story lines that grew ever increasingly fantastic.

This leaves me to wonder if Hill’s strength might actually be short stories. He’s written a number, but I have yet to read any. It could very well be that he has the creative mind to come up with fascinating plot concepts but has trouble extending them out to novel size without adding the literary equivalent of flying buttresses that medieval cathedrals used to stay upright.

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