This is an essay I wrote in college, putting forth an interpretation of God and the devil working together in the novel Horns by Joe Hill. I would like to state that I am not a religious person. I did a lot of research for this since it was a school project at the time. I do not claim to know that Joe Hill meant to convey any of the things I present in this essay, it is just my interpretation from reading the novel along with the information I found during my research. I know religion is a serious topic for some, so I wanted to make it very clear that you do not have to agree with me at all and these are simply my opinions. And, if Joe Hill really did put them in the story on purpose, I thought them to be unique and clever.
**WARNING: There are spoilers present in the essay**
There never seems to be any sort of relationship shown between God and the devil other than as enemies. However, Joe Hill may have written about such a relationship in his novel, Horns. Horns is a novel about a young man named Ignatius Parrish. His girlfriend, Merrin, is found murdered, and the whole town believes he is the one who murdered her. After one night of drunken anguish and rage, Ig awakes knowing he has done something wrong but can’t remember what. When he looks into a mirror, he sees horns growing out of his head. Throughout the day, Ig finds out that these horns hold a power that forces people to speak whatever is on their minds, no matter how horrible, and when he comes into contact with people, he can see every bad thing that person has done in his or her life. Ig uses these powers to find Merrin’s killer and avenge her.
There is an obvious presence of the devil in the novel; however, there may also be a presence of God. Richard Corliss reviewed the story and mentioned, “…you may believe that what compels Ig is not the cunning of Satan but the power of Christ” (1). It is also suggested that Satan’s role may simply be to keep Ig alive. (Corliss 1). Horns may seem like a novel praising the work of the devil, but through an analysis of the text, it is plausible to argue that Horns actually presents an alliance of both God and the devil.
The first symbol that most people associate with the devil in Horns is the horns on Ig’s head. The media has often used horns as a symbol of the devil or evil, but Horns may symbolize the opposite. Benjamin Scolnic explores this subject when he analyzes the passage in the bible when Moses sees the Lord while receiving the Ten Commandments. After Moses descends from Mt. Sinai, those waiting for him were afraid because he had horns growing from his head. The original description of Moses was “karan ohr panav,” which Scolnic translates for us as “the skin of his face was horned” (574). Scolnic later mentions, “Karan does not just mean ‘horned’; it is also associated with the selection of God’s human representative and, most of all, with power” (Scolnic 577). If God marked Moses as his representative on Earth and, due to Moses being chosen, he appears with horns growing from his head, then horns should be associated with God rather than the devil. Once examining this story from the bible, it is easier to view Ig as a representative of God’s justice against evil rather than the devil, since he uses these powers from the horns to track down Merrin’s murderer and bring her true justice.
Another important symbol in Horns is a mysterious tree house that Ig and Merrin find together in the woods. The tree house was never seen before and, after they find it once, they can never find it again. The treehouse was simple, yet it looked like it was built by a professional. The entrance was on the bottom and painted on the underside was, “Blessed shall you be when you go in” and on the inside, “Blessed shall you be when you go out.” There was a note found by Ig that said:
The Tree House of the Mind
Tree of Good & Evil
1 Old Foundry Road
Gideon, NH 03880
Rules and Provisos:
Take what you want while you’re here
Get what you need when you leave
After Merrin dies, Ig finds the tree house one last time, on the night he did something horrible which he could not remember. Ig sees the tree house that night and, after entering it, sets it on fire, taking the matches he finds with him. Later in the story, Ig finds out that fire rejuvenates him. This seems to symbolize a sort of rebirth, or a baptism, by fire. The important link to God here is “Gideon.” Gideon was a man God used as an instrument to deliver mayhem to the people of Israel for turning away from him. Interestingly, his name means “Feller of trees.” Ig seems to resemble Gideon as a weapon of God.
The line “Tree of Good and Evil” reminds me of the Tree of Knowledge. Shaul Bar examines the Tree of Knowledge, among others, in his writing “Trees in the Book of Genesis.” He mentions that many people believe the tree provided access to universal knowledge, and he elaborates by adding, “Rather than a judgment or choice between good and evil, [universal knowledge] means objective knowledge of everything in the world, both good and evil” (Bar 387). Bar is saying that instead of viewing things as good or evil based on teachings from parents or other guardians, universal knowledge is to know the truth of a certain object, person, or idea and know whether it is good, evil or, more likely, both at the same time. Perhaps Ig was allowed this knowledge, which is how he is able to see every bad thing a person did, even if he knew that person was good.
The fire Ig started in the tree house can also be viewed as a symbol. This symbol could be associated more with the devil. Of course, there are the fires of Hell that are associated with the devil but, in the story, the matches Ig uses are “Lucifer Matches.” Ig burns the tree house with Hell fire, so maybe that explains how fire rejuvenates him later in the story when Lee, the person who actually killed Merrin, tries to burn him to death in his car with those same Lucifer Matches. Antje Labahn mentions in his research of fire used by God in The Bible, “Another reason for choosing fire may be its fatal effectiveness. No parts of the human sphere will remain when fire burns” (Labahn 247). This description of fire explains how the tree house Ig and Merrin found could never be found again. First, it is important to mention that when Ig and Merrin were young and first found the tree house, they were scared by a banging noise on the trapdoor, like someone trying to break in. Later, we find out it was an older version of Ig who was banging on the door when he found it the night he burned it. Those two moments in the almost magical tree house merged into one event. Therefore, when Ig burned the tree house, it disappeared from the human world because as Labahn suggests, fire eliminates everything from the human sphere. However, it may still exist in a different sphere, even if it still burns.
I believe Hill made the tree house Ig and Merrin’s Heaven because it is the site where they both go after death. As Merrin dies she whispers, “I escaped…I climbed the tree and got away. I finally found my way back, Ig. I’m okay. I’m where it’s safe.” When Ig dies after a fight with Lee, he sees a burning tree with a burning tree house nestled in its branches. He climbs into it where a celebration is awaiting him, a wedding. Merrin is there waiting for him clothed in fire. He joins her there and “together they burned.” I have a theory that Heaven is a personal sanctuary. A person can form his or her own Heaven and, in certain circumstances, your Heaven can be shown to you, just as Jonathan Aitken suggests in his essay “The Road to Heaven” when he states, “…some signs from the invisible world can occasionally be sighted” (Aitken 21). Your Heaven answers to your distinct longings. When you need a sanctuary or a safe place it comes to you, just like it did for Merrin when she was being killed.
When I first read about Ig returning to the tree house, it sounded like they were in Hell, but I knew that couldn’t be correct. After I thought about it, it made sense that the tree house was their Heaven and since Ig set it on fire, it stayed on fire. Even though it was set ablaze, that does not mean it was destroyed because Heaven cannot be destroyed; Heaven is “a fortress of absolute invincibility” (Aitken 20). It might seem odd that, after getting revenge on Lee for killing Merrin, Ig would still be allowed into Heaven, but “Heaven is where God dwells and, its population will be full of surprises” (Aitken 23). Even though the devil had a part in Ig’s transformation, God had an important part in his life and transformation as well. God will always accept His children into Heaven if they repent their sins. It says in The Bible, “But now, do forgive me my sin once more, and pray to the Lord your God to take at least this deadly pest from me” (Exodus 10:17). Ig is certainly cursed with a “deadly pest,” this new power to know all the horrible, mean thoughts of those he thought he knew. Confronting the truth is a hard thing to do when you thought you knew it already. Many times he wishes the horns would go away; he wants to cut them off. So, when he dies, it is a relief that he will not have to suffer with this power any longer and he certainly regrets anything the horns made him do.
Lastly, snakes play an important part in Ig’s new life. At first, Hill downplays their importance. He mentions every now and then that snakes are following Ig. However, Ig later is overwhelmed by them. They follow him and raptly pay attention to everything he says, and he can control them. Snakes are more often associated with the devil rather than with God. Snakes do “embody either positive or negative qualities” (Knowles 166), but in The Bible they are seen as mostly evil. On the positive side, snakes are extremely wise. Christ even tells his disciples to “…be wise as serpents” (qtd. in Knowles 166). However, they are also shrewd and deceptive. The most famous association of snakes with the devil is the serpent that “deceived Eve with its cunning…” (Knowles 166). As with fire, the snakes are one way the devil keeps Ig alive. Ig is able to use the snakes to his advantage in his final showdown with Lee. He was able to kill Lee with a rat snake, convincing it to slither inside of Lee’s open mouth when he was already injured. Also, it is revealed to the readers that Ig was actually saved by a snake when he was a young boy, like it knew there was a plan for him in the future. Ig was drowning, and he believed that Lee was the one who saved him, but as Lee is trying to kill him, Lee confesses that he did not save him. He says, “I didn’t even smack your back to get you breathing again. I only kicked you by accident, trying to get away from you. There was this big snake right next to you…maybe the snake pulled you out. It sure was big enough.” Snakes were put under the control of Ig to fulfill his purposes, most likely by the devil, after Merrin died. This must mean that Ig was under the care of snakes throughout his life because God, and possibly the devil, knew what would happen to Ig, what purpose he would have to serve in the future, and needed to keep him alive. The purpose of the snakes and the fire are both to protect Ig, to keep him alive until he brings about the justice he and God demand.
The devil certainly played his part in Horns. He is present in the fire and the snakes. However, more hidden, God is also present and easily over looked. He is present in the horns and the tree house. Joe Hill combines these two entities in a way no one has before. He uses them together, as a team, to help Ig gain the revenge and justice he needs for Merrin. It may seem unreligious to say God had a part in helping Ig kill Lee for killing Merrin, but it has been calculated that God killed at least 2.8 million people in the bible (“Biblical Deaths”). That is the low estimate. The devil killed 10 people. In Horns, a waitress says, “That’s why you killed her. That’s why people usually do it. It isn’t hate. It’s love.” God certainly loves everyone, yet He killed more people than the devil. The devil is content with leading people astray, making people cause chaos for all other people to suffer. Ig was corrupted for a time, but since he ended up in his Heaven this shows that he still believed, and he was sorry for his actions and his doubts. He only doubted because Merrin was taken from him and God did nothing to try to stop it. In the end, they were able to be together through the powers of Christ and the devil’s defense.