A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: The Devil You Know

Like most people, I sometimes suspect that everyone hates me.  Not all at once, at least not unless I’m really depressed, and very rarely do I hold this thought about anyone for longer than a second.  But it happens, almost involuntarily, like the shift in perspective that accompanies an optical illusion or Magic Eye thing: I briefly encounter an alternate version of reality in which everyone is barely tolerating me out of a repressed sense of politeness, dropping hints of their irritation that I am too oblivious to pick up.  Because if I am truly that oblivious, I would never be able to tell the difference, would I?

Obviously I am imagining things when I think this- at least most of the time- okay, if anyone does regularly hate me, please feel free to stop hanging out with me- but it’s not so far-fetched.  After all, there are things I believe to be true most of the time that just don’t hold up to scrutiny- for example, I believe that most situations have obviously “right” and “wrong” responses that an individual can choose between, and that you can use logic and judgment to arrive at the “right” response, given world enough and time.  If you were to ask me if I believed this at any random moment when I was not being confronted by such a situation, I would probably say yes.  But in practice, even the simplest ethical dilemmas can cause disagreement among intelligent and reasonable individuals.  Bring up a situation, and everyone will be sure he has the correct response, and more likely than not everyone’s response will differ.  We’re all so used to the view of the world through our own eyes that we frequently fail to grasp even the basic premises of other people’s thoughts.

Horns, the second novel from Joe Hill, is a horror story that will feel familiar to people who can be found in the corner of the room at a house party.  If the object of the horror genre is to tear off the veneer of respectable society and locate the forces that lie beneath, then Horns is a rousing success.  Hill’s theme seems to be the misunderstandings that arise from social interaction, a theme ripe for horror ever since The Turn of the Screw, and the underlying truth that emerges from his novel is that great bogeyman of Western philosophy, the idea that we are all alone in our heads, and our understanding of the outside world is second-hand at best.  Hell is not other people; it’s us, inside our own private little skulls forever.

The book opens with two paragraphs that give us all the information we need in wonderfully terse prose.  Ig Parrish, an otherwise unremarkable 26-year-old, wakes up after a night spend “doing terrible things,” and finds that horns have grown on his head.  These horns give him the usual powers of the devil: temptation, knowledge of others’ sins, a natural kinship with snakes and fire.  When people see the horns, they begin to tell Ig every sin they’ve committed, every unnatural thought and action for which they are responsible.  Then they ask him to let them do it more.  Perhaps it’s inaccurate to say that Ig tempts them; it’s more like he lets them do what they want.  C.S. Lewis once explained that villains are easier to write than heroes, because when imagining a villain, the mind simply has to stop what it’s already tired of doing.  Ig serves as the hellish avatar of that impulse, but unlike the devil, it doesn’t seem to give him any great power- in fact, it hurts him.  He learns every evil thought that his girlfriend, family, and friends have ever had about him.  Many of the other people he meets harbor the desire to kill him- but why that is, I leave for you to find out.

The truly scary part of horror- the horror that stays with you- comes from taking a generally-accepted truth, then showing how that truth is false.  The gold standard for this in the modern age is John Carpenter’s film Halloween.  People generally think of the prosperous, predominantly-white suburbs like Haddonfield, Illinois as incredibly safe places- so safe, in fact, that the residents rarely lock their doors, and let their kids go out trick-or-treating on Halloween with minimal supervision.  The truth that Halloween exposes is that these places, because of the widespread acceptance of their safety, are incredibly dangerous- someone could put on a mask and start murdering teenagers, and he’d probably get to five bodies before anyone would notice!  The audience realizes that society as we know it rests on the assumption that every member of the community will uphold the social contract.  It’s not police or mental institutions or urban flight that will keep us safe, it’s an unspoken agreement that everyone is going to behave within certain ethical boundaries.  And when you get right down to it, how much do you trust everybody to behave?

Horns, in an unexpected nod to classical dramatic structure, is divided into five books, each one of which seems to tackle a different underlying assumption, twisting it to expose the underlying assumption beneath it.  Most of these have to do with the intricacies of social interaction, and I’m honestly still rolling them around in my head, trying to figure out what they all mean.  Hill, a longtime horror writer who got his start in short stories and graphic novels (oh, and is also the son of Stephen King), knows the conventions of the genre so well that he manages to do something original with all of them.  I’m doing a disservice to his book by talking about it purely as a horror novel, but it’s just so damn good at engaging and vivifying a genre that so often seems rote and predictable, it’s difficult to talk about anything else.  But there’s lots of stuff here, some of it seemingly autobiographical in nature (Ig is the son of a famous father), some of it universal (Hill is able to evoke better than anyone I’ve ever read the literally nightmarish quality a romantic breakup can create).

So yeah, if you are into horror because of its ability to expose the fault-lines of society and human nature, Horns is your type of novel.  If you are into horror because you enjoy being scared, you’re going to have a harder time with it.  Despite the many attacks he suffers, Ig never truly seems to be in much danger, and the plot is almost too interesting for its own good- at the visceral level, horror depends on a tension between what the characters are doing and what we want them to do; when Ig goes into a house to look for a clue, we should be shouting “don’t go in the house!” but in reality we want to find the clue as badly as he does.

I haven’t said nearly as much about the book itself as I wanted to, but that tends to happen when it’s stored on my Kindle and I don’t have it in front of me.  Bottom line is, Horns is a great read that sticks with you when you’re done.

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This entry was posted on 22 May 2013 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , , , .
May 2013

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