Horns, by Joe Hill

A man wakes up to discover that he's sprouted horns on his head overnight. Joe Hill's latest book, Horns, starts off with a simple premise, one that unfolds into a wonderfully complicated and minimal story of murder, revenge and the inherent darkness that exists within people. At the same time, Hill brings out a deeply philosophical and intriguing look at faith and Christian allegory.

As Ig Parrish finds that people are influenced by the new additions to his head, the circumstances of personal tragedy (his girlfriend's rape and murder, which he was blamed, but cleared of) begin to resurface as people begin to tell him their deepest inhibitions and secrets. As the story progresses, we are taken deep into the lives of each character, which fully explains and supports the events that send the story moving in the first place. The end result is a literary masterpiece that brings out a rich blend of horror and supernatural with a cast of fantastic and utterly believable characters. Every element, every mention of something comes to some level of significance to the story as a whole, and Hill brings out rock and soul music, personalities, and other numerous references to help support the story. This is a rare thing that I've seen, and possibly one of the best examples that I've come across where this is enacted and works: everything in the story supports the main premise and story as a whole.

Horns is wonderfully complex, yet minimal at the same time. The story jumps around from character to character and from the present to various points in the past, with a dedicated, focused purpose. Rather than wandering off to put together a story of epic proportions (and a story where a man grows horns on his head certainly calls for this), Hill burrows down and tells an intensely personal story, with a small collection of characters who's stories intertwine around a central tragedy. This is storytelling at its best, where there are no arbitrary actions, but carefully crafted story. It's a notable achievement, and I hope that Hill receives due recognition for this: it doesn't happen all that often. The result is a superior, notable book.

This novel is one that left me disturbed on many levels. Rather than the horror being presented as Ig turns into a supernatural being, of sorts, the horror comes as Ig sees what people are capable of as they confess to him the darker thoughts that they've been harboring. At the same time, the events that put much of the plot into motion are horrible, terrible things, and in the way that the book is structured, the reader is conscious of what is likely coming, with a growing amount of horror. This is terror on a level that far transcends a monster or man in a mask: this is the horror of the inevitability of something coming down the line, with no way to alter its course.

Furthermore, there is a residual bit of horror in the ways that people interact with their faith. Hill puts together an interesting look at the relationship between God, Lucifer and People, with some interesting parallels and conclusions sure to piss off any devotee of Christianity, but not coming out as a lecture on philosophy: this is storytelling at its finest, and a story that is possibly one of the more important to examine in a critical fashion.

Horns is a stunning read, for the story, the characters and the allegory, which turns this into a novel holds up with some of the best books that I’ve picked up this year: easily comparable in quality to China Miéville’s ‘ The City and The City’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’.

Awash in Flames

The Dove World Outreach Center in Florida is planning on burning the Islamic Holy text on the anniversary of September 11th, despite statements from the White House, General David Petraeus and even Glenn Beck, of all people. The pastor of the church, Rev. Terry Jones, has claimed that he's taken the concerns into consideration, but all indications are that the church still intends to move along with their plans. I'm stunned (although sadly, not at all surprised) that people continue to spout such hate, regardless of the consequences.

General David Petraeus has since e-mailed a statement to the Associated Press, noting that such acts are already seeing some impact overseas, and has warned that the consequences will be immediately used by extremist factions as propaganda against the U.S. cause overseas. Acts against Muslim icons, such as Mohammad or the Koran have been seen to ignite public opinion against the west, with the Danish cartoon controversy a couple of years ago, as well as the news that a Koran might have been flushed down a toilet during the course of an interrogation at Guantanamo Bay.

While this is an act that is certainly a small one, the consequences of such actions are deliberatively provocative, and miss some of the major, underlying points when it comes to the motivations behind the war. The pastor, Jones, belongs to a group that believes that the return of Christ will happen in the modern day, and that they have a mission to combat evil: something that they see the Koran as falling under. When it comes to current events, it is a short leap to what it seems is a more common belief amongst Americans: the Islamic community of the world is fundamentalist and violent, because of their religion, which is a ridiculous argument.

The ongoing conflict in the Middle East is not strictly a religious confrontation, but a politically motivated battle that utilizes religion as a tool to organize its followers. Looking at the violence across Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it helps to look at the incidents and attacks. Suicide bombers and other fanatics tend to be those who follow their leaders, carrying out orders, not the leaders of such movements themselves. The violence is also not religiously motivated: these are people who are not trying to convert followers by destroying them. Rather, the attacks are against those perceived as aggressors that are encroaching on one’s territory, and in a large way, on an established order that is highly resistant to change.

The strict, fundamentalist views of Islam are not things to be defended: they represent amongst some of the more horrifying elements of any organized religion, and like any larger religion, it is not a view that is shared by all. Fanning the flames (quite literally, in this instance) will do little but turn more people against the interests of peace in the world. In this instance, burning these books will undoubtedly turn people against U.S. interests in the Middle East, and will lead to soldier’s deaths that need not happen.

On the military side of the house, counter insurgency forces are seeking to remove insurgents from the general population by using the best means possible – in some cases through combat, in other cases, through patrols and creating an otherwise inhospitable environment for them, cutting off support or removing key people from influence. This job will ultimately be harder when more of the general population (who is already at or beyond the tipping point) has another reason to distrust U.S. troops. The interests of the United States overseas are not to push any sort of religious agenda: it is to secure U.S. interest overseas by eliminating the possibility of insurgent terrorism from happening again.

On the public relations side, this paints the country in an exceedingly poor light, because insurgency forces can point to instances such as this and use it as a sort of proof that the U.S. is intolerant and seeks to rid the world of people. That’s not the case, but hard facts don’t matter in these instances: the thought and idea does, just as any conspiracy theorist believes wholeheartedly in whatever they believe in, no matter what proof is presented. The country has its share of issues, but comparatively, the country hasn’t resorted to bombings or widespread attacks on its citizens at the bequest of the government that rules it.

In any case, what this church is doing is downright sad, and goes against everything that I know the bible to teach (granted, that is a bit limited) , and it is those lessons that look far more to peace and order that I would rather teach and leave an impression with.

To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck


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One of the latest books that I've read recently is John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown, his second novel, and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The story, which looks to the Bible, ancient myths, paganism and several other influences, weaves together a story about belief and faith, mixing reality and fantasy in what I would really call a speculative fiction novel.

Set in the 1800s, the book follows the story of the Joseph Wayne, a Vermonter, who yearns to go out west, and receiving the blessing from his father, he does so, only to learn that his father has passed away shortly after he settles in California. At that moment, Wayne believes that his father's spirit and soul has become imbued with the giant oak tree next to the house, and in his own way, be worships the tree. His three brothers move out west to his farm, and for a time, the valley is teeming with life. The brothers come across a rock in a glade, with a stream coming out of it, and discover that it is a sacred place to the Indios. Soon thereafter, Benjy, their youngest, alcoholic brother, is killed in a scuffle by Juanito, one of the farmhands, who vanishes.

One brother, Burton, is a devout Christian, and becomes angry with his brother for his interactions with the oak tree, believing it to be of darker powers at work, which go against his own beliefs. He leaves the farm, but not before killing the tree. This has dire consequences for the valley, which begins to dry up as a drought sets in, which begins to kill the land. More accidents come. Joseph's wife, Elizabeth, falls to her death at the rock, and Joseph and Thomas decide to leave the farm, bringing their cattle to greener pastures. Joseph stays, and is rejoined by Juanito, who convinces Joseph to visit the local priest. When Joseph tries to get the priest to pray for the land, he refuses, and tells Joseph that he is sick, and offers his own help. Joseph returns to the glade to find that the stream coming out of the rock has dried up. When he decides to leave, he gets cut. Inspired, he climbs on top of the rock, cuts his wrists open, sacrificing himself, and soon after, it begins to rain.

I have long been a fan of John Steinbeck, ever since I first read his short novella, Of Mice and Men in Mrs. Page's English class at Harwood Union High School, and I moved on to a number of his other books - Cannery Row, Travels With Charley, The Pearl, The Red Pony, and The Grapes of Wrath - I've long loved the Americana element of his writing, and for me, he is one of the quintessential American writers, one who touches deeply on themes of the country. Recently, I've become interested in reading more of his books, and while browsing through the bookstore, I came across this book, and was interested because at a first glance, it fell squarely within the speculative fiction range, retelling elements of the Bible, older religions and myths to bring about an interesting story. There are a number of pure fantastic elements as well, right down to the last actions of the book, when Joseph dies, and his spirit renews the land from his soul and belief.

I've long believed that stories aren't really defined by their physical story elements - the characters, locations and items that they use - but by the ways in which the characters perceive their environment around them, and use the actions of the story to learn. To A God Unknown is about belief and faith of the strongest type: the intangible, the unknowable, and the impossible. Throughout the story, Joseph is a character that believes strongly in the land and its well being, and perceives of some higher power in ways that are not, to say the least, traditional, and raising the ire of his family and community members. Yet, while reading, Joseph's actions demonstrate that he has the most honest and raw form of belief: he believes in the land, and sees his actions rewarded in any number of ways, and punished in others. For me personally, this was an interesting book because I'm not sold on the concept of God, as proscribed by any number of religious institutions. My beliefs lie somewhere with Josephs: God, or any higher power that escapes definition, is something that is unknowable, intangible and mysterious.

The last pages of the book were by far one of the most important that I read, in almost anything, when Joseph goes to a priest, looking to help save the land. The priest refuses, saying that his job is to ensure the salvation of the human soul, not that of the land, setting up a major divide between the anarchical views that Joseph takes, as opposed to a major institution such as the Catholic Church. In a way, Joseph believes in the entirety of the universe, which felt far more basic and universal than the Church, which looks simply to one of God's (If there is one who created everything) creations for their own benefit. This has never, and still doesn't, sit well with me, and I prefer Joseph's more universal, general view on how the world runs. This falls with a number of other world views, and it's interesting to see this all presented in a novel such as it was. Steinbeck has created a wonderful, fantastic novel with To A God Unknown, and one that has left me thinking far more than I thought it would have.