Horns Review Part Two: Curse God & Die

This is the 2nd, and final, part of what started as a book review for Joe Hill’s Horns. I was pleasantly surprised when it developed into a lengthy discourse on the topic of injustice and suffering.

This essay is for 2 groups of people: those who have already read Horns, and those who have no intention of reading the book but are troubled by the subject of injustice.

For those who missed the first part, catch yourself up here.

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*spoiler alert*

“Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.'” – Job 2:9

The book of Job begins with a showdown between God and the devil. God describes Job as an upright and blameless man, without equal on the earth. Satan challenges God to remove his blessing from Job’s life, firmly convinced that injustice delivered to an upright man will break his spirit and cause him to curse God. God accepts the challenge and gives Satan free reign over everything in Job’s life, though he cannot touch Job himself.

At this point we can only read between the lines and assume that Satan busted out his fiddle, sallied up his courage, and started playing a Nero-song for Job and his loved ones. Within a span of 24 hours Job is notified that all of his possessions, and all of his progeny – his future – has gone up in flames. Everything he had worked for was taken from him.

Wanting to turn up the tempo, Satan returns to God and asks for permission to plague Job himself. God agrees. And so Job’s reward for worshiping God properly was additional suffering. Apparently, this double whammy, one-two-in-the-gut, was enough to cause Job’s wife to tempt him into sin; in a nutshell, she tells him, “husband, abandon your morality and curse this fickle person you call God, even if it means punishment by death.” Job refuses her advice.

Ig Perrish does not refuse her advice. In fact, the core issue of the book of Job – will Job curse God and abandon his faith, in the midst of all these temptations? – is not even a backstory in Horns. The story opens with the cursing; the rest is simply exposition on the dying.

And make no mistake about it – to curse God is to die. Mr. Hill & I have radically divergent views on the verbs “to sin” “to live” & “to die,” but we both agree that Ig Perrish’s decision to curse God places him on a fixed track to his own destruction. Gone is the man who loved and worshiped Merrin Williams, replaced by a demon that gradually supplants his humanity. The horns, sprouted in blasphemy, grow more refined as he continues his devolution into rage, hatred, and revenge.

Horns is a tragic demonstration of the old adage, “idols break the hearts of their worshipers.” Ig is fully aware that the death of Merrin, his idol, started the death of his own humanity. With her gone, the world is nothing more than tinder for a box of Lucifer Matches. He worshiped Merrin in the Treehouse of the Mind – that mystical place where he first made love to a woman – and everything about that place, and the love he held for her, has that religious connotation. Mr. Hill purposely describes it as “a temple,” a metaphor that he develops most fully in Ig’s Fire Sermon, wherein he proclaims that love for a woman is the highest form of religious expression.

Mr. Hill never denies the existence of God; he simply removes God from the tableau. God is indifferent to the point of absence. And though Horns is replete with churches, priests, and crosses, none of them carry their traditional symbolism. The church is simply a place where Ig meets his true god, Merrin; Father Mould is a caricatured parrot of every modern priest caught in the throes of a sex scandal; and crosses are nothing more than magical talismans that carry remnants of Merrin’s love.

Horns is the perfectly inverted Job story. Because God is taken completely out of the book, we are left with the devil preening in front of  a mirror.

This is the source of the moral problem that arises from the book: all throughout the story, the author wants us to believe (in a deeply emotional way) that the shedding of Ig’s humanity – his ability to finally take off the proud, arrogant head of moral superiority, and replace it with a more fun-loving devil’s leer – is progress. This is shown most clearly in Ig’s Fire Sermon:

“Only the devil loves humans for what they are and rejoices in their cunning schemes against themselves, their shameless curiousity, their lack of self-control, their impulse to break a rule as soon as they hear tell of it, their willingness to forsake their immortal soul for nookie. The devil knows that only those with the courage to risk their soul for love are entitled to have a soul, even if God does not.”

“Only the devil operates with any reason, promising to punish those who would make earth itself Hell for those who dare to love and feel.”

“I tell you [God] is alive and well but in no position to offer salvation, being damned Himself for his criminal indifference. He was lost the moment He demanded fealty and worship before He would offer His protection.”

“The devil is always there to help those who are ready to sin, which is another word for ‘live.'”

If this is true, if the devil is always there to help those who are ready to sin, then why am I expected to believe that Lee Torneau (the bad guy of this story) – a rapist and murderer – is really a bad guy? Doesn’t this make him the paragon of Ig’s own exhortation? It seems to me that Lee Torneau could use the same argument that the Joker used in Dark Knight: “I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”

Joe Hill tries to get around this logical fallacy through his use of the religious tableau in the Treehouse of the Mind. How so? Merrin is obviously the Virgin Mary, which makes Ig the haughty angel. The trumpeting angel is Terry, Ig’s brother. Satan is lurking between the shadows of the candles (God is nowhere to be found). This leaves the alien figurine whispering in Mary’s (Merrin’s) ear to be none other than Lee Torneau.

Mr. Hill spends an excessive amount of narrative trying to convince the reader that Lee Torneau’s sociopathic personality makes him alien, and therefore disqualified from the rules that apply to Ig, Terry, Merrin, Vera, his parents, and all the other typical run-of-the-mill-sinners. Lee Torneau’s demonstration of the motto “to sin is to live” is not to be equated with freedom and life, as it is with Ig and others, because Lee Torneau is not really human; while still a boy, the poor sap was pushed off a fence by a feral cat, which caused him to land on top of a pitchfork, which damaged his brain so severely it catapulted him from the realm of human to villain (his villainy established immediately when he brutally slaughters the cat). And with his villainness firmly established, we are free to lob our emotional vindictiveness upon him, waiting for his comeuppance, even as we are told to celebrate Ig’s maturation into a devil through the same process that resulted in Lee Torneau himself becoming a devil.

Mr. Hill seems to want it both ways: he wants Ig to fully sin so he can fully live, but he doesn’t want Lee Torneau to be given the same rights. Ig is rewarded for burning down heaven, but Lee is punished for slaughtering Eve.

Mr. Hill has effectively swallowed the lie that was first offered to Eve:

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘you will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'” Genesis 3:4-5

Horns works only because Mr. Hill has established himself as a moral god of his own story; he is the judge that passes sentence on Lee Torneau’s morality, while exonerating Ig’s descent into depravity. The only thing that separates Ig’s and Lee’s devilish tendencies is the reader’s emotional attachment to Merrin, not the philosophy that Ig himself espouses.

But in fairness to Mr. Hill, he does grapple with a very difficult truth: suffering & injustice are an everyday reality of being alive, of walking on this earth. And if God is not a present reality to judge between a devil like Lee Torneau and a comparatively upright man like Ig Perrish, then Mr. Hill’s solution to burn down heaven and take justice into one’s own hands is a viable one.

Still, Mr. Hill offers only one response to injustice. The book of Job provides another. I have twice read a book that provides a third.

Stephen Lawhead wrote a book called Byzantium that is historical fiction about an Irish monk named Aidan who understood very well the injustices of life, and the quandary this produced for a man who tried to believe  in a loving God.

After being enslaved, Aidan watched his fellow monks murdered, traveled throughout the known world, and experienced firsthand the slaughter of innocents and the death of his faith. Later, he returned to Ireland where he was given time to process all that he had experienced. He met with an old friend who asked him what he had expected from all of his journeys:

~~    ~~    ~~

“I expected God to honour his word. That, at least, if nothing else. I thought I could depend on the truth. But I have learned there is no truth. The innocent are everywhere slaughtered – they die pleading for God to save them, and death takes them anyway. Faith’s own guardians are inconstant liars, and Christ’s holy church is a nest of vipers; the emperor, God’s Co-ruler on Earth, is a vile, unholy murderer…

We begin by trusting, and learn there is no one worthy of our trust. We learn that we are all alone in this world, and our cries go unheeded. We learn that death is the only certainty. Yes, we all die: most in agony and torment, some in misery, and the fortunate few in peace, but we all die. Death is God’s one answer to all our prayers.”

~~    ~~    ~~

The story could have ended there, and we would be left with nothing more than a variation of Ig’s Fire Sermon. But it does not end there, because like in the book of Job, the God who has been silent, remains silent no more:

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“What did you expect, Aidan?

Did you think that Christ would blunt the spearpoints, deflect the lash, cause the chains to melt away when they touched your skin? Did you expect to walk in sunlight and not feel the heat, or to go without water and not grow thirsty? Did you think that all the hatred would turn to brotherly love the moment you strode into view? Did you think both storms and tempers would calm because of the tonsure on your head?

Did you believe that God would shield you forever from the hurt and pain of this sin-riven world? That you would be spared the injustice and strife others were forced to endure? That disease would no longer afflict you, that you would live forever untouched by the tribulations of common humanity?

Fool! All these things Christ suffered, and more. Aidan, you have been blind. You have beheld the truth, stared long upon it, yet failed to perceive so much as the smallest glimpse of all that was shown you. Sure, this is the heart of the great mystery: that God became man, shouldered the weight of suffering so that on the final day none could say, ‘Who are you to judge the world? What do you know of injustice? What do you know of torture, sickness, poverty? How dare you call yourself a righteous God! What do you know of death?’

He knows, Aidan, he knows!”

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If you believe that Christ really came into the world, and really lived as the Gospels say He lived, and that He really died as the Gospels say He died, then though He may sometimes seem indifferent and distant, He is anything but.

As I wrap up this essay, I realize I’ve been wrestling with the ending of Horns, pondering what Terry meant by the phrase “poor devil.” I don’t have any profound analysis for what Mr. Hill intended with those words, but my own understanding of good and evil, injustice and judgment, suffering and redemption, causes me to feel the same way about Mr. Hill’s world view – poor devil.

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. […] of the story, including how it relates to my understanding of good & evil, stay tuned for my Horns Review Part Two: Curse God & Die. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Horns Review Part Two: Curse God & DieOn […]

  2. […] Horns review, this essay is for 2 groups of people: those who have already read The Magicians, and those who […]

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