Horns by Joe Hill


  Joe Hill

  To Leanora—love, always

  Satan is one of us; so much more so than Adam or Eve.





  Chapter One

  IGNATIUS MARTIN PERRISH SPENT the night drunk and doing terrible…

  Chapter Two

  HE SHOVED HIMSELF BACK into his khaki shorts—he was still…

  Chapter Three

  HE DROVE TO THE MODERN Medical Practice Clinic, where they…

  Chapter Four

  THE NURSE WHO TOOK Ig’s weight and blood pressure told…

  Chapter Five

  HE DROVE. HE DIDN’T THINK WHERE, and for a while…

  Chapter Six

  HE HAD GONE DOWN to the river to work out…

  Chapter Seven

  THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT for him but to go home…

  Chapter Eight

  WHEN HE WAS BACK in the front hallway, he looked…

  Chapter Nine

  HE STOOD IN THE DOORWAY of his bedroom for a…

  Chapter Ten

  TERRY LEANED AGAINST THE WALL, just inside the swinging door.


  Chapter Eleven

  SHE WAS SENDING HIM a message.

  Chapter Twelve

  THREE DAYS BEFORE IG and Merrin met for the first…

  Chapter Thirteen

  IG HAD A FRAGMENTARY MEMORY of the time he was…

  Chapter Fourteen

  LEE TOURNEAU WAS SHIVERING and soaking wet the next time…

  Chapter Fifteen

  THE WHOLE WAY TO CHURCH, Ig’s palms were sweating, felt…

  Chapter Sixteen

  THE NEXT TIME LEE CAME OVER, they went into the…

  Chapter Seventeen

  IG WAS WAITING FOR HIS TURN in the barber’s chair…

  Chapter Eighteen

  LEE OPENED HIS MOUTH to say something, then changed his…

  Chapter Nineteen

  IG SAW MERRIN WILLIAMS and then pretended he hadn’t: no…

  Chapter Twenty

  FOR ALL THE REST of the summer, they had a…

  The Fire Sermon

  Chapter Twenty-One

  IG DROVE AWAY FROM HIS PARENTS’ HOUSE, from his grandmother’s…

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  IG STOOD JUST INSIDE THE DOOR of The Pit, waiting…

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  THE WAITRESS SAID HE’D BE more interesting if he killed…

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  HE STAYED OFF THE INTERSTATE on the way back—back where?

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  IGGY WOKE IN THE FURNACE, wrapped in the old, piss-stained…

  Chapter Twenty-Six


  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF TOWN, he pulled over to the side…

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  IN THE AFTERNOON IG DROVE up the highway to a…

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  IG WOKE, STIRRED BY A CLANG and a steely shriek.

  Chapter Thirty

  LEE TOURNEAU STOOD ON THE RIVERBANK and watched the current…

  The Fixer

  Chapter Thirty-One

  HIS MOTHER WAS DEAD in the next room, and Lee…

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  AFTER HIS MOTHER DIED, Merrin called and e-mailed more frequently,…

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  MERRIN ANSWERED THE DOOR in sweatpants and a bulky hoodie,…

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  LEE HAD HOPED FOR A LATE NIGHT with Merrin, but…

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  HIS MOTHER DIDN’T HAVE A LOT to say at the…

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  HE REMEMBERED THE FENCE. He did not remember much about…

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  HE SAT UP A WHILE LATER. The corn whispered frantically,…

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  LEE HAD A SMILE READY for Merrin when she opened…

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  HE LOOKED BACK AND FORTH with his one good eye,…

  Chapter Forty

  AFTER HE HIT HER with the stone, Merrin stopped trying…

  The Gospel According to Mick and Keith

  Chapter Forty-One

  IT WAS EARLY WHEN IG collected his pitchfork from the…

  Chapter Forty-Two

  I KNEW IT WAS YOUR CAR right away,” Dale said,…

  Chapter Forty-Three

  IG SAT AT THE BOTTOM of the chimney, in a…

  Chapter Forty-Four

  AFTER HE HAD READ MERRIN’S final message, and set it…

  Chapter Forty-Five

  HE FIGURED LEE WOULD NEED at least half an hour…

  Chapter Forty-Six

  NO SOONER HAD HE PULLED himself into the room than…

  Chapter Forty-Seven

  SHADOWS LAPPED UNSTEADILY at the walls, rising and falling, the…

  Chapter Forty-Eight

  IG STOOD, A BURNING MAN, devil in a gown of…

  Chapter Forty-Nine

  HE CLIMBED DOWN from the open doorway and then, as…

  Chapter Fifty

  TERRY CAME BACK HOME in the third week of October,…

  Acknowledgments, Notes, Confessions

  About the Author

  Other Books by Joe Hill



  About the Publisher



  IGNATIUS MARTIN 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. He lurched in surprise, and for the second time in twelve hours he pissed on his feet.


  HE SHOVED HIMSELF BACK into his khaki shorts—he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes—and leaned over the sink for a better look.

  They weren’t much as horns went, each of them about as long as his ring finger, thick at the base but soon narrowing to a point as they hooked upward. The horns were covered in his own too-pale skin, except at the very tips, which were an ugly, inflamed red, as if the needle points at the ends of them were about to poke through the flesh. He touched one and found the point sensitive, a little sore. He ran his fingers along the sides of each and felt the density of bone beneath the stretched-tight smoothness of skin.

  His first thought was that somehow he had brought this affliction upon himself. Late the night before, he had gone into the woods beyond the old foundry, to the place where Merrin Williams had been killed. People had left remembrances at a diseased black cherry tree, its bark peeling away to show the flesh beneath. Merrin had been found like that, clothes peeled away to show the flesh beneath. There were photographs of her placed delicately in the branches, a vase of pussy willows, Hallmark cards warped and stained from exposure to the elements. Someone—Merrin’s mother, probably—had left a decorative cross with yellow nylon roses stapled to it and a plastic Virgin who smiled with the beatific idiocy of the functionally retarded.

  He couldn’t stand that simpering smile. He couldn’t stand the cross either, planted in the place where Merrin had bled to death from her smashed-in head. A cross with yellow roses. What a fucking thing. It was like an electric chair with floral-print cushions, a bad joke. It bothered him that someone wanted to bring Christ out here. Christ was a year too late to do any good. He hadn’t been anywhere aro
und when Merrin needed Him.

  Ig had ripped the decorative cross down and stamped it into the dirt. He’d had to take a leak, and he did it on the Virgin, drunkenly urinating on his own feet in the process. Perhaps that was blasphemy enough to bring on this transformation. But no—he sensed that there had been more. What else, he couldn’t recall. He’d had a lot to drink.

  He turned his head this way and that, studying himself in the mirror, lifting his fingers to touch the horns, once and again. How deep did the bone go? Did the horns have roots, pushing back into his brain? At this thought the bathroom darkened, as if the lightbulb overhead had briefly gone dim. The welling darkness, though, was behind his eyes, in his head, not in the light fixtures. He held the sink and waited for the feeling of weakness to pass.

  He saw it then. He was going to die. Of course he was going to die. Something was pushing into his brain, all right: a tumor. The horns weren’t really there. They were metaphorical, imaginary. He had a tumor eating his brain, and it was causing him to see things. And if he was to the point of seeing things, then it was probably too late to save him.

  The idea that he might be going to die brought with it a surge of relief, a physical sensation, like coming up for air after being underwater too long. Ig had come close to drowning once and had suffered from asthma as a child, and to him, contentment was as simple as being able to breathe.

  “I’m sick,” he breathed. “I’m dying.”

  It improved his mood to say it aloud.

  He studied himself in the mirror, expecting the horns to vanish now that he knew they were hallucinatory, but it didn’t work that way. The horns remained. He fretfully tugged at his hair, trying to see if he could hide them, at least until he got to the doctor’s, then quit when he realized how silly it was to try to conceal something no one would be able to see but him.

  He wandered into the bedroom on shaky legs. The bedclothes were shoved back on either side, and the bottom sheet still bore the rumpled impression of Glenna Nicholson’s curves. He had no memory of falling into bed beside her, didn’t even remember getting home—another missing part of the evening. It had been in his head until this very moment that he’d slept alone and that Glenna had spent the night somewhere else. With someone else.

  They had gone out together the night before, but after he’d been drinking awhile, Ig had just naturally started to think about Merrin, the anniversary of her death coming up in a few days. The more he drank, the more he missed her—and the more conscious he was of how little like her Glenna was. With her tattoos and her paste-on nails, her bookshelf full of Dean Koontz novels, her cigarettes and her rap sheet, Glenna was the un-Merrin. It irritated Ig to see her sitting there on the other side of the table, seemed a kind of betrayal to be with her, although whether he was betraying Merrin or himself, he didn’t know. Finally he had to get away—Glenna kept reaching over to stroke his knuckles with one finger, a gesture she meant to be tender but for some reason pissed him off. He went to the men’s room and hid there for twenty minutes. When he returned, he found the booth empty. He sat drinking for an hour before he understood that she was not coming back and that he was not sorry. But at some point in the evening, they had both wound up here in the same bed, the bed they’d shared for the last three months.

  He heard the distant babble of the TV in the next room. Glenna was still in the apartment, then, hadn’t left for the salon yet. He would ask her to drive him to the doctor. The brief feeling of relief at the thought of dying had passed, and he was already dreading the days and weeks to come: his father struggling not to cry, his mother putting on false cheer, IV drips, treatments, radiation, helpless vomiting, hospital food.

  Ig crept into the next room, where Glenna sat on the living-room couch, in a Guns N’ Roses tank top and faded pajama bottoms. She was hunched forward, elbows on the coffee table, tucking the last of a doughnut into her mouth with her fingers. In front of her was the box, containing three-day-old supermarket doughnuts, and a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke. She was watching daytime talk.

  She heard him and glanced his way, eyelids low, gaze disapproving, then returned her stare to the tube. “My Best Friend Is a Sociopath!” was the subject of today’s program. Flabby rednecks were getting ready to throw chairs at one another.

  She hadn’t noticed the horns.

  “I think I’m sick,” he said.

  “Don’t bitch at me,” she said. “I’m hungover, too.”

  “No. I mean…look at me. Do I look all right?” Asking because he had to be sure.

  She slowly turned her head toward him again and peered at him from under her eyelashes. She had on last night’s mascara, a little smudged. Glenna had a smooth, pleasantly round face and a smooth, pleasantly curvy body. She could’ve almost been a model, if the job was modeling plus sizes. She outweighed Ig by fifty pounds. It wasn’t that she was grotesquely fat but that he was absurdly skinny. She liked to fuck him from on top, and when she put her elbows on his chest, she could push all the air out of him, a thoughtless act of erotic asphyxiation. Ig, who so often struggled for breath, knew every famous person who had ever died of erotic asphyxiation. It was a surprisingly common end for musicians. Kevin Gilbert. Hideto Matsumoto, probably. Michael Hutchence, of course, not someone he wanted to be thinking about in this particular moment. The devil inside. Every one of us.

  “Are you still drunk?” she asked.

  When he didn’t reply, she shook her head and looked back at the television.

  That was it, then. If she had seen them, she would’ve come screaming to her feet. But she couldn’t see them because they weren’t there. They existed only in Ig’s mind. Probably if he looked at himself now in a mirror, he wouldn’t see them either. But then Ig spotted a reflection of himself in the window, and the horns were still there. In the window he was a glassy, transparent figure, a demonic ghost.

  “I think I need to go to the doctor,” he said.

  “You know what I need?” she asked.


  “Another doughnut,” she said, leaning forward to look into the open box. “You think another doughnut would be okay?”

  He replied in a flat voice he hardly recognized, “What’s stopping you?”

  “I already had one, and I’m not even hungry anymore. I just want to eat it.” She turned her head and peered up at him, her eyes glittering in a way that suddenly seemed both scared and pleading. “I’d like to eat the whole box.”

  “The whole box,” he repeated.

  “I don’t even want to use my hands. I just want to stick my face in and start eating. I know that’s gross.” She moved her finger from doughnut to doughnut, counting. “Six. Do you think it would be okay if I ate six more doughnuts?”

  It was hard to think past his alarm and the feeling of pressure and weight at his temples. What she had just said made no sense, was another part of the whole unnatural bad-dream morning.

  “If you’re screwing with me, I wish you wouldn’t. I told you I don’t feel good.”

  “I want another doughnut,” she said.

  “Go ahead. I don’t care.”

  “Well. Okay. If you think it’s all right,” she said, and she took a doughnut, pulled it into three pieces, and began to eat, shoving in one chunk after another without swallowing.

  Soon the whole doughnut was in her mouth, filling her cheeks. She gagged, softly, then inhaled deeply through her nostrils and began to swallow.

  Iggy watched, repelled. He had never seen her do anything like it, hadn’t seen anything like it since junior high, kids grossing out other kids in the cafeteria. When she was done, she took a few panting, uneven breaths, then looked over her shoulder, eyeing him anxiously.

  “I didn’t even like it. My stomach hurts,” she said. “Do you think I should have another one?”

  “Why would you eat another one if your stomach hurts?”

  “’Cause I want to get really fat. Not fat like I am now. Fat enough so you won’t want to have any
thing to do with me.” Her tongue came out, and the tip touched her upper lip, a thoughtful, considering gesture. “I did something disgusting last night. I want to tell you about it.”

  The thought occurred again that none of it was really happening. If he was having some sort of fever dream, though, it was a persistent one, convincing in its fine details. A fly crawled across the TV screen. A car shushed past out on the road. One moment naturally followed the last, in a way that seemed to add up to reality. Ig was a natural at addition. Math had been his best subject in school, after ethics, which he didn’t count as a real subject.

  “I don’t think I want to know what you did last night,” he said.

  “That’s why I want to tell you. To make you sick. To give you a reason to go away. I feel so bad about what you’ve been through and what people say about you, but I can’t stand waking up next to you anymore. I just want you to go, and if I told you what I did, this disgusting thing, then you’d leave and I’d be free again.”

  “What do people say about me?” he asked. It was a silly question. He already knew.

  She shrugged. “Things about what you did to Merrin. How you’re like a sick sex pervert and stuff.”

  Ig stared at her, transfixed. It fascinated him, the way each thing she said was worse than the one before and how at ease she seemed to be with saying them. Without shame or awkwardness.

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