Joe Hill’s Horns isn’t a horror novel

19 Jun

Continuing the theme of my last post, Joe hill is an excellent thief. When writers come in couples or in families, it can be fun to trace back techniques and habits, but I think it’s time to stop comparing Joe to his father. While Joe Hill certainly has some flavors of his father in his prose, so does, I would argue, every contemporary writer of thrillers and horror, including myself. He’s just that prolific and influential. Like the Simpsons.

But Horns isn’t plotted like a Stephen King novel, and it’s also not a horror or a thriller in the way King’s work would define it. In a lot of ways, Horns derives more from Eastern European magical realism like Kafka or Bulgakov.

Just look at the opening lines:

“Ignatius Marting Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances. He was so ill—wet-eyed and weak—he didn’t think anything of it at first, was too hungover for thinking or worry. But when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.”

To compare, Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”

The hallmarks of magical realism are there right off, something fantastic shoved in to banalities. Joe Everyman wakes up with something impossible and learns something highly upsetting about the nature of humanity. As Ig goes out into the world, the surreal honesty of those he encounters reminds me of the reactions from the citizens of Moscow when they met the devil in Master and Margarita.

So how, you may ask, are Ig’s horns different from, say, the dome in King’s Under the Dome? Or the wicked painting in Rose Madder? Or any fantastic element in any traditional horror?

I asked a professor a similar question once while studying “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (Or was it “Book of Sand”?) I wanted a distinction between “magical realism” and the kind of books that were rarely if ever assigned in a formal literature class. The professor gave me the classic porno run-around, “You know it when you see it.” He clearly wasn’t my favorite of professors. I got better answers from other professors later, but the difference didn’t sink in even then.

Genuine horror—everything from King to Lovecraft, even Poe who often stayed within the realms of the physically possible—requires a little bit of world-building, even if that world is similar to ours, give or take a ghost or two. There is a logic to how that alternate world works, a feeling of history and consequences built around the story. This is how speculative fiction always works, including sci-fi and fantasy, worlds built with their own interior logic—sometimes familiar, sometimes utterly fantastical.

Magical realism, however, doesn’t build a separate world for the characters to play out their troubles in with its own logic. There is no logic. There is emphasis on the idea that this world is our world with all the grit, trivialities, and obnoxiousness that come with being a real-live boy or girl. There is a randomness to the fantastical elements that satirizes the wild illogic that fills our actual daily lives.

Also, the fantastical element in MR is not usually the antagonist—the antagonist is a realistic villain or an internal conflict that is recognizable. The fantastical element, in all its nonsense and strangeness and potential for symbolism, shines a light on how weird real-life is, how strange and full of meaning it can be.

I am not making a value distinction here. Horror stories can certainly satirize, can certainly parallel true human issues and emotions and all that good stuff. But horror’s function, it seems to me, is to pull on the deep threads, the darkness that can lay underneath everyday life. While magical realism tries to show how horribly surface and familiar that darkness can be (or beauty, for it isn’t by nature dark like horror is, it just can be). Different strategies for to reach different truths through fiction, if you will allow me to be so general.

Horns is certainly dark, definitely scary, absolutely thrilling. But I think it comes from a different spring of storytelling than King’s world-building tales. Good for Joe.

Am I splitting hairs here? Or is it even important to classify a novel either way?


Edit: This is funny


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