What happens to supernatural horror after it moved past the idea of the uncanny?
There's a scene in Joe Hill' sophomore novel, Horns, in which our main protagonist - a luckless slob named Ig - has a short conversation with a waitress at a roadside bar and grill. For the story to make any sense, you need to know that Ig has two fairly large horns growing out of his head. Ig never gets the idea to pull a Hellboy (though Hellboy himself probably thought of it as pulling a Concrete) and shave them off, so they're fairly pronounced by the time the waitress see them. In the course of their banter, she asks Ig, "Is it a mod?"
Ig confesses to not knowing what a mod is.
She clarifies, "A body modification. Did you do it to yourself?"
This is typical of the book. The supernatural is not awe inspiring or stunning. It doesn't produce existential vertigo or shake the pillars of our understanding of the world. Instead, it is just one more weird-ass thing in a world chock full of weirdness.
At first I was reminded of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, specifically the discussion of how a unicorn sighting, discussed enough, devolves into the common place and is eventually folded into the mundane world and refashioned as a sighting of a horse with an arrow through its head. Though, on further reflection, that analogy doesn't fit. It isn't that there aren't unicorns, to use Stoppard's terms, but rather that they are no stranger than the fact that there are also horses walking around with arrows through their heads.
Which is genuinely weirder: A man who is forced to grow horns or a who decided voluntarily to attach horns to his forehead?
The central problem creators modern supernatural horror face is that the supernatural is neither stranger nor scarier than real life. It is the central problem of the New Horror movement (Peter Straub's term, not mine - take it up with him) and a hallmark of the newest wave of genre fiction, alternately dubbed the New Fantasists, the New Weird, or Interstitial Fiction. And Hill confronts this problem in his latest novel.
Let's get back to Horns. Ig's horns are not a body modification. They started growing after Ig, small time loser black sheep of the wealthy local celebrity family and alleged rapist and murderer, committed sacrilege by pissing on statue of the Virgin Mary during a bender. The statue was set up at the scene of the murder of Merrin Williams, the love of Ig's life and the woman he was accused of raping and murdering. Ig was never convicted of the crime because the DNA evidence the police hoped would connect him to the crime went up in a mysterious fire at the out-of-town lab facility to which it had been sent. Ig, of course, maintains his innocence. But not even his own family doesn't believe him.
The disfiguring nature of horns turns out to be the least of Ig's problems. He soon discovers that the horns have an inexplicable power over others. Whenever somebody sees the horns, they begin to tell Ig about their deepest, darkest, secret desires. Then, inevitably, they ask Ig's permission to act on these desires, they ask for permission to sin.
Remember those old cartoons where an anthropomorphic duck would be at a moral crossroads, then suddenly an angel and a devil - both Lilliputian versions of the main duck - would appear on his shoulder. The angel would advocate for the moral high ground and the devil would push for committing whatever sin the water fowl was on the brink of committing. Ig basically starts transforming into the devil on your shoulder, the voice of temptation.
Of all the superpowers in the world, the last one you should ever want is the power to read minds. Unfettered access to the unspoken thoughts of others is like unfiltered access to sewer water. There's a reason we don't say everything on our minds. Besides, do you really want to know the sleazy details of your spouse's private kinks? What about you brother or sister's? Mom and dad? Ig finds this new found ability to compel confessions maddening. Everywhere he goes, people see the horns and start chatting away about the worst things they can think of. His doctor confesses the sexual passion he feels for his daughter's 14-year-old best friend. His mom confesses that having kids was the biggest regret of her life. His grandmother confesses that she feigns her senility in order to punish her children and grandchild for their weakness. His father confesses that he bought the arson gig that secured Ig's freedom. A local cop confesses that he cops a feel (pun intended) when he is patting down arrestees. The local gas and sip attendant reveals that he wants to kill his desperately ill wife and start life over again with a mistress in Florida. And so on and so on.
In the midst of all these confessions, however, Ig's brother, Terry, confesses that he always believed Ig's innocence. Ig couldn't have killed Merrin, because Terry knows who did it.
With that confession, Ig's suicidal spiral ends, replaced by a mission of revenge that will put him in conflict with a person whose deep reserves of bloodthirsty evil will prove a match even for a (literal) devil like Ig.
Hill's second novel is less assured than Heart-Shaped Box, his debut haunted road novel. Though this unevenness isn't the product of Hill losing his nerve or doubting his talents. Rather, he bit off more than he could chew. There's at least two books in here: One dark comedy about a man growing into the role of the devil and the other a grim story about a doomed romance poisoned by unrealistic ideals of love. He never full balances these two strands, nor does he fully explore the Ig's new role as the devil (most notably, if he's the devil, does that prove the existence of God?) or the status of Merrin's real killer, who Hill suggests might also be a devil like Ig, but may not be. It's unclear if Hill's ambitions outstripped his abilities or if he lacked discipline to keep things tight. Still, the result is more sloppy than disappointing. For my part, I'd rather have a wealth of interesting, if not fully explored ideas, then a lack of ideas. Furthermore, even in the service of too many ideas, Hill's writing remains fresh and energetic. Hill also has a profound sympathy with his characters - even the most vile. He is willing to climb into their skin and speak in their voice, an abdication of authorial control over the interpretation of their text that is, in its own small way, genuinely heroic.
Less a horror story than a dark fantasy, Hill's work owe less to the American mainstream horror tradition his father so dominates and more to the eccentric visions of Thomas Disch, the off-kilter Brit sensibilities of Gaiman, instinctual storytelling primitives like Joe Landsdale, and modern genre revivalists like Kelly Link. What links them altogether is their dry, laconic approach to the uncanny. In the traditional horror novel, visitations from the impossible are a source of deep unrest. In works like Horns, they are something to endure or exploit, something to navigate or learn to live with.
Nearly a week ago, I posted the first chapter - a short two-paragraph chapter - of Horns. In it, Ig wakes up with a monster hangover and discovers his horns. Regular ANTSS commenter Sassy said that it reminded him of Kafka, specifically one assumes it reminded him of The Metamorphosis. There is something Kafka-esque about Horns and the New Horror moment it is part of, though it runs deeper than the transformation trope (which is hardly Kafka's invention). It's in the exhaustion of the transcendant, the idea that even visible evidence of a reality beyond our own won't make getting through the long and tiresome day any easier. When people confess their secret sins to Ig, it is hardly a revelation. They do it off-handedly, with the slight sense of relief one feels when you unburden to a stranger at a bar. There's a impatience to it, as if they'd rather quit talking about it so they can just get back to whatever it was they were doing. They embody the modern crisis of modern horror. It isn't that we don't believe in a transcendent world. It's that we're solipsistic to care. We vaguely hope that the banshee's death-signfiying wail won't be so loud as to drown out the crate dive Lady Ga Ga rarities mix that guy who is only sort of our Internet friend made us and we kinda accepted simply because he's a facebook friend but we think Lady Ga Ga is about as musically talented as a canker sore and he's kind of a bore, but still, free music, fuck yeah!
In his defense, Hill works in a narrative reason for everybody's nonchalant attitude to the fact that a devil is prowling in their midst, but it's clear that it is simply a beard. The story doesn't need it and I don't think Hill cared.
Horns is odd in that it is a flawed book that is still quite strong. An imperfect and occasionally unwieldy book, it is the work of an author determined to expand their range and willing to take the occasional fall if that's what it takes to push to boundaries. The result feels jagged and occasionally underdeveloped, but it's never dull.