02/28/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Devil May Care: Horns by Joe Hill

The premise sounds crazy: the significantly named Ignatius Perrish awakens from a drunken stupor to discover that he's the devil. Painfully fleshy horns have sprung from his head, and he is suddenly endowed with powers no sane person would want. Everything that is nasty in people is now an open book for Ig, and his presence drives them to act on their ugliest repressed impulses.

Once on his way to an altruistic career in social activism, Ig's life changed forever when his girlfriend was brutally murdered and he became the prime suspect. Grieving and wrecked, Ig doesn't think his life can get any worse -- until he morphs into the very thing everyone believes he is. In addition to its devil protagonist, the novel is laced with Christian symbolism that includes a vicious Jesus figure and a Mary whose chastity is very much open to question.

As it turns out, Horns by Joe Hill is so crazy that it's great -- a hell of a ride (no pun intended) that will keep you up until three in the morning. This is, in fact, the beach read that I was so vainly seeking this summer: richly entertaining, relentlessly suspenseful, with compelling characters. This is the book to take to the beach, only to find that you're caught in the middle of the high tide because you didn't see it coming.

Although Horns is extremely gripping, Joe Hill proves once again that he is a horror writer for intellectuals; as in Heart-Shaped Box, there are carefully wrought themes intertwined with the suspense, which ultimately enrich the novel and make it all the more satisfying. While Heart-Shaped Box was a novel about the archetypal dark side of America, Horns is deeply personal, an anatomy of the human heart. It is a novel about the secrets people keep even from themselves, what John Knowles calls "that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth." And it is ultimately a quest for that truth, which makes its theological overtones all the more appropriate.

Part of the appeal of the novel is its dark humor and the unremitting wit of its prose. We are told that as a kid, Ig won Scriptural Jeopardy because, "when faced with answers from the Bible, Ig had all the right questions." The sound a horn makes when a mute is inserted is a "lascivious, hand-up-the-skirt squall."

Featuring a protagonist who is simultaneously villain and victim, Horns seeks to revisit the concept of the hero -- can a hero be someone who does something truly monstrous in the opening chapters? (I won't give it away.) Can the devil himself be a "good guy," and if so, what does that mean?

We're all familiar with the tired concept of the "anti-hero" -- the hero that is too much of a bad boy to bring home to Mom, except in fact he's not, because at this point we've seen him so often that Mom is used to him, will even understand when he doesn't wipe his feet on the welcome mat. The glut of sexy vampires in recent fiction, on the page and onscreen, have made the "anti-hero" so commonplace as to be obsolete. Horns takes us beyond that banality, examining instead the concepts of sin and goodness themselves, and at times revealing them in the most unexpected places.

But here's the really good part: You will be shocked. You will laugh. And if you are like me, you will even cry.