By Joe Hill (William Morrow; 2010)

Here it is, the long-anticipated second novel by Joe Hill, following 2007’s unaccountably well received HEART-SHAPED BOX. I was admittedly never too impressed by that novel, which despite a riveting premise ran out of steam quickly. It seemed to me that Hill, a prolific short story writer, had trouble sustaining interest over the course of three-hundred odd pages.

HORNS, it turns out, is far better overall than its predecessor, fulfilling many things the previous book promised but didn’t deliver. I doubt it will be as successful, though, as HEART-SHAPED BOX was straightforward and easy-to-digest whereas HORNS is thorny and complex; it’s a surreal horror tale first and foremost, but can also be taken as a supernatural love story and/or sophisticated theological inquest.

The premise is simple enough: a young man named Ignatius Perrish, or Ig, wakes up one morning after a night of apparently satanic behavior (we don’t learn what he actually did until near the end) to find two sharp horns sprouting from his temple. Over the course of the following day Ig discovers the horns have a number of disquieting supernatural properties, among them the power to make those around him reveal their innermost secrets.

Lengthy (perhaps a bit too lengthy) flashbacks fill us in on Ig’s sordid history in the sleepy Northeastern town where he lives. His girlfriend Merrin, with whom he had a decidedly complicated relationship, was raped and murdered a year prior to the horn-sprouting. Ig remains the sole suspect, but the true culprit is Lee, a childhood friend whose trouble-making ways conceal untold depths of psychosis.

Ig himself is hardly an angel, as the horns jutting from his head attest, and decides to use his newfound infernal powers to avenge himself on Lee. This is easier said than done, as Lee proves a far tougher foe than anticipated, and the supernatural properties of Ig’s horns turn out to be somewhat variable (meaning they don’t always work). A further complication is added by the presence of Ig’s brother, who grew up alongside Ig and has his own relationship with Lee.

The climax, which as you might expect is plenty bloody, could frankly be a little stronger. For that matter the novel overall could be safely shorn of 50 (or more) of its nearly 400 pages. But it contains a protagonist as interesting and multi-faceted as nearly any you’re likely to encounter, and a narrative that’s crazed, prickly and truthful, often to a discomforting degree. HORNS isn’t exactly an entertaining read, but it’s definitely an invigorating one.