Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Horns by Joe Hill

It's been a year since Merrin Williams, the love Ignatius Perrish's life was raped and murdered.  Not only is he dealing with the loss of Merrin, everyone in the small New England town believes that he is guilty despite the fact that he wasn't charged let alone convicted.  On the anniversary of Merrin's death Ig heads to the place where his beloved died, and gets absolutely pissed. When Ig awakes the next morning he's alarmed to find horns growing out of his head.  He barely has time to deal with the fact that he has horns growing out of his head before he realises that their real curse is that they cause people he runs into to confess their deepest darkest secrets whether they want to or not.  Does anyone really want to know the secrets thoughts of the people they care for?

I picked up this book on a whim because I remembered that Daniel Radcliff starred in the movie based on the book.  I now officially believe that Radcliff owes me for the toxicity that my delicate constitution has been exposed to. Despite the fact that the protagonist wakes up with horns, Horns, is not a horror story; it's magical realism. It attempts to explore the nature of good and evil through a reinterpretation of the biblical scripture and the role of the devil.  Hill really works hard to have a discussion about the nature of evil, the degree to which we perform expectations rather than express our true desires and or feelings. Though the aforementioned applies to some to degree to all of the characters, it's particularly true of the psychopath antagonist Lee.  Lee has disdain for every person he interacts with and seeks to use them in a way that benefits him.  At the end of the day, Lee wants power in all of its forms and will to do anything to achieve it. Lee's hatred seems to fixate on women. He commonly refers to women as sluts, whores, bitches because he finds them to be disposable. He fantasizes about abusing his 15 year old neighbour, clubbing Glenna to death, that "irresponsible bitches who do drugs have to get sterilized".  Lee murders and rapes Merrin and essentially tortures his mother to death. 

Unlike other books where one could argue that that the antagonist has been written this way to convey that they are evil and need to be stopped, the misogyny doesn't begin and end with him. The entirety of Horns is littered with misogynist language and just about every character engages in it.  Even children are not spared as we learn when a little girl throws a temper tantrum in the doctor's office.
"Several of them glanced at Ig as he entered, a few in a hopeful sort of way, fantasizing, perhaps, that the little girl’s father had arrived to take her outside and deliver a brutal spanking. But as soon as they saw him, they looked away, knew in a glance that he wasn’t there to help."
Ig doesn't even stop to reflect on how wrong it is that people are fantasizing about abusing a little girl to silence her. He just accepts it as though it's normal and yet he is held up as the moral arbiter in Horns. He doesn't flinch when Lee calls women the most misogynist names. 

The only woman who is uplifted in this novel is Merrin and she is murdered and raped. Merrin knows what she wants out of life and who she wants to spend time with.  It's Merrin who initiates a relationship with Ig. Merrin doesn't last as a realised person for very long and quickly becomes this ethereal like figure to be worshiped and placed on a pedestal only to die for Lee's desire to possess her and Ig's man pain. By the end we know more about how Merrin's red hair looks like in the sun, the whiteness of her skin and the shabbiness of her wardrobe than we do of her as a person. The worst part of this all for me is that when Merrin is raped and murdered, she's actually thankful for the quick end because she has a fast moving form of breast cancer. 

Even as Merrin is set up as an angel, Glenna, the woman Ig moves in with after her death receives the exact opposite treatment.  Glenna unlike Merrin is from the wrong side of town and poor.  She works as a hairdresser and is not valued by anyone, least of all Lee and Ig.  Lee calls Glenna a fat slut repeatedly and brags about using her for sex.  For Ig, Glenna is simply someone to fill the void with and he never really considers her feelings until the end. Glenna, of course, suffers from low self esteem and so it's suggested that she allows men to treat her badly.  Neither Ig or Lee take any responsibility for how they treat Glenna. She's just a warm body who exists for their comfort and to be pitied because she's poor.  

Horns is the kind of book in which you actively hope that your particular marginalisation is erased but Hill is an equal opportunity offender.  There aren't a lot of people of colour in Horns.  The first actual person of colour we meet is Merrin's roommate whom Lee refers to as a, "butchy slant". In an interaction with Allie, a woman Ig meets at the doctor's office he learns that she is having an affair with her golf pro Michael.  Allie refers to blacks as jigaboos and believes that all black men covet white women, and that the speech of black people is continually littered with expletives.  Michael however is the exception to the rule because he "talks white".  Allie fantasizes of leaving her husband and child to be with Michael because of the size of his genitalia which she has nicknamed, "five-iron".  Could this be anymore racist?  

There is only one disabled character - Ig's grandmother.  Because Ig's Horns force people to confess their misdeeds we learn that the woman actually utilizes a wheelchair not because anything is wrong with her hip or her stamina but because she feels entitled.  Ig's grandmother likes being pushed around in her wheelchair by her family as a way for them to pay her back for all she has done for them.  This is beyond toxic and plays up on the false idea that people are just faking disability. Disabled people constantly have gatekeepers validating the state of their bodies by the medical establishment and by including this character, Hill affirms the belief that disabled people cannot be trusted to be truthful about how their bodies function.

Hey, GLBT people at this point, I bet you're hoping that Hill forgot that you existed. I'm sorry to burst your bubble because he most certainly remembered.  Gay men are almost uniformly referred to as "faggots". It's heavily suggested that they aren't real men and are deserving of emasculation.  Hill actually goes as far as to appropriate the holocaust. 
"Cumstain had already been burned with the cigarette several times. Ig could see three bright, shiny, red spots of inflamed tissue on his chest. Jesse moved the tip of the cigarette from burn mark to burn mark, holding it only an inch from Cumstain’s skin. The glowing coal traced a rough triangle. 
“You know why I burned a triangle?” Jesse asked. “That’s how the Nazis marked a fag. That’s your mark. I woulda given you something not so bad, but you hadda squeal like you’re taking it up the ass. Plus, your breath smells like fresh dick.” 
“Ha!” shouted the fat boy. “That’s funny, Jesse!” 
“I got just the thing to get rid of that dick smell,” said the boy with the snake.
“Something to wash his mouth out.”
This is actually a gang initiation and we have no idea if the man being tortured is in fact gay; however, invoking the experiences LGBT were forced to endure during the holocaust is beyond problematic.

As a suspect in Merrin's death, Ig gets a lot of negative attention from the cops.  When Ig questions why the cops want to bust him he's told, "Because of that faggot look you've always got on your face. That faggot look pisses me off. I'm not a big fan of homos, Sturtz told him". Sturtz actively wishes that he had a reason to arrest Ig and wonders about lying to justify it.
"I could like and say you touched me.  Propositioned me. I've always thought you looked more'n half queer, with your swishy walk and those eye that always look like you're going to start crying.  I can't believe Merrin Williams ever let you in her jeans. Whoever raped her probably gave her the first good fuck of her life." (pg 27)
For all of Sturtz homophobic language it's clear that it comes from a place of self hatred.
“What would you do,” Ig asked, “if a guy touched you?”
“I’d shove my nightstick up his asshole. Ask Mr. Homo how he likes that.” Sturtz considered a moment, then said, “Unless I was drunk. Then I’d probably let him blow me.” He paused another second before asking, in a hopeful sort of voice, “Are you going to touch me so I can shove my—”
“No,” Ig said. “But I think you’re right about the gays, Sturtz. You’ve got to draw the line. You let Mr. Homo get away with touching you, they’ll think you’re a homo, too.”
“I know I’m right. I don’t need you to tell me. We’re done here." 
Posada is Sturtz's partner and he is also gay though clearly closeted.  Posada has own reasons for harassing Ig. "And I want to bust you because maybe you'll struggle and then Sturtz will bend you over the hood of the car to put the cuffs on," Posada said. "That'll give me something to beat off over tonight, only, I'll be picturing both of you naked."Posada loves his job because it gives him the opportunity to handcuff half naked men and he sometimes uses his power to sexually assault them.

In just about every way that you can think of Posada and Sturtz are despicable.  Ig deals with them by suggesting to Posada that he should come onto Sturtz. When he next sees the cops, they are supposed to be investigating a crime scene and instead are holding each other's penises while they urinate. They follow this up with a passionate kiss which surprises Ig, because he never thought putting them together to escape their scrutiny would lead anywhere. Ig however figures that it's the work of the devil because, "sin could always be trusted to reveal what was most human in a person, as often for good as for ill."  There's no doubt that Posada and Strurtz are evil and corrupt but the suggestion that their sexual activity is sinful is outright homophobic.

The concept behind Horns is that all of us have a dark side, which I'm sure is a truism; however, Hill takes it too far.  Each and every person has sick secrets, and passions. Rather than informing the story, I think that Hill's depiction of the inner workings of the mind speak to more of who he is a person that who we all are.  Am I really supposed to believe that random people are walking about thinking about beating their children, setting their parents on fire, raping random people and engaging in every kind of problematic thought about marginalized people as possible? Horns suggests that all we are looking for is for someone to tell us that its okay to engage in this horrific behaviour. Yeah, I know that the world is a shitty place and that the rule of law is sometimes all that stands between us and complete anarchy but to suggest that this is typical of what it is to be human just doesn't wash for me. I didn't so much find this horrific as a case of mental masturbation leading nowhere.

It actually took me quite some time to read Horns. I kept having to put it down because of the disgust it inspired in me. Because the offensive language spewed from the the characters like vomit after one too many cheap drinks and in isolation, there's never anyone there to say that this is wrong. There's never anyone to tell them that they are being disableist, misogynist, homophobic, classist or racist. The only one in a position to call people out on their bullshit is Ig, and though he's the supposed good guy, he clearly doesn't give a shit. The only time Ig intervenes is when he sense that someone once to move their hatred forward and commit physical violence as though the language in and of itself isn't a form of violence.   There isn't a single redeemable character and that includes the angelic self sacrificing Merrin and therefore, there's no reason to invest in the story.  By the end, I didn't even care if Ig got his revenge for Merrin's murder or if he even survived.

I don't know who read this shit book and thought it would be a good idea to turn it into a movie. There's nothing redeeming or entertaining about Horns.  I've read a lot of shitty books but Horns is on my all time worst list.  If I could give it less than 0.5 Fangs I would. Even if I could get past the shitty characters and that Hill played with so many isms as well as appropriated the Holocaust, he just kept skipping around telling us how Merrin died from different perspectives.  Explaining how Merrin and Ig met took pages upon pages and was filled with unnecessary drama.  So, even if I could get past the isms, I cannot get past the horrible writing.  This is a read at your own risk folks, don't say I didn't warn you.