Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Wednesday, July 27, 2022: Maximum Shelf: White Horse

Flatiron Books: White Horse by Erika T. Wurth

Flatiron Books: White Horse by Erika T. Wurth

Flatiron Books: White Horse by Erika T. Wurth

Flatiron Books: White Horse by Erika T. Wurth

White Horse

by Erika T. Wurth

Erika T. Wurth's White Horse is a raw and evocative piece of literary horror about a Native woman's descent into her own and her mother's past. With its stark settings, bone-chilling revelations and blood-soaked images, this is a modern-day ghost story that takes its hauntings and its monsters seriously.

Kari James has organized her life in recent years around three things: hanging out with her cousin Debby, taking care of her disabled father and drinking at her favorite dive bar, the White Horse. The bar might be rundown and filled with feral cats, but it's become the place that feels most like home for Kari since the tragic death of her best friend Jaime. Since then, Kari has cleaned up her act and lived the straight and narrow, with the exception of her predilections for whiskey, cigarettes and heavy metal.

But when Kari touches a newly discovered, intricate bracelet once owned by her long-absent mother, she finds herself suddenly haunted by grotesque and disturbing images of a young woman. A young woman who is almost certainly her mother, although not the mother Kari thought she'd be. Kari, who grew up hating her mother for leaving her at birth and spurring the car accident that disabled her father, must now face an alternate version of her past: one in which her mother is not at all the villain of the story.

Chillingly atmospheric, White Horse conjures a world that straddles this one and the next, existing in a smoke-choked liminal space in which the grittiness of reality and the uncanny wonder of the seemingly mystical exist on the same plane. Key to such a world is Wurth's masterful ability to invoke settings ripe with horror potential. From the corners of "dusty used bookstores" to the unsettlingly nostalgic roller rinks of a 1980s childhood, with lights that "flickered pink, then green, highlighting the path in front of us," these settings are the stuff of real places, the places where real poignancy exists. And, yet, they are places where one can sense the presence of something just beneath the surface, just out of reach. The most central and perhaps most engrossing of these settings is the White Horse, part ruins of the past and part hope for the future, a place that has "a milky, dreamy quality to the red lights swinging over the pool tables, like the wind from the open doors was bringing them something new, something I'd pushed away for as long as I could remember."

While White Horse's settings alone tend to give the novel a great deal of atmospheric and thematic appeal, it's Wurth's invigorating blend of genres--from literary horror to classic ghost stories to neo-noir pulp mysteries--that truly creates its distinctive mood. Kari is at once a troubled noir detective and a haunted young woman, but Wurth's dedication to character detail ensures that Kari is also always more complex than any trope. Fiercely loyal, tough-edged but soft-hearted, Kari grounds the novel's often surreal borders, particularly through her complicated but endearing relationship with Debby. If ever one feels it might be easy to drown in the brutality of the events Kari's investigation plumbs, Kari herself is always there to remind readers of the way back.

And White Horse does, indeed, have its share of brutality and horror. Kari's dreams, in particular, will scratch the itch of any horror fan, as will the rusted-out roller coasters and hazy basement heavy-metal bars of Wurth's settings. The monstrous Lofa of Native folklore that lingers in Kari's peripheral vision is particularly disturbing, not just in appearance but in all he comes to represent. Wurth's descriptions never shy away from the visceral nature of this horror, allowing her to evoke a connection between the hair-raising elements of a spiritual beast and its real incarnations. In this way, when the Lofa "begins to tear into [my mother], its long hair caressing her like a lover as it pulls wet, meaty chunks up and out of her neck, her shoulder, her dark hair coated in blood and viscera," the disturbing moments of the novel's horror become inextricably linked to the bodily reality of traumas that its characters dare not remember.

But perhaps the most affecting elements of Wurth's brand of horror aren't her overt descriptions of blood-encrusted bodies, but rather that sensational detail of everyday embodied horror: the "metallic, coppery taste at the back [of the mouth]--almost like blood" and "the smell of scotch, rich and yellow, [that] filled the air and [can raise] the hair on my arms." This insistence upon the link between real and imagined horrors best defines, too, the novel's astoundingly cinematic climax. In this scene, as in the rest of Wurth's novel, violence and trauma are not just the things of nightmares, but horrifying realities one has learned to accept and live alongside every day. --Alice Martin

Flatiron Books, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250847652, November 1, 2022

Flatiron Books: White Horse by Erika T. Wurth

Erika T. Wurth: Letting Monsters Out of the Bottle

(photo: Michael Teak)

Erika T. Wurth, a writer and professor of creative writing, is an urban Native of Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee descent living outside of Denver with her partner, stepchildren and extremely fluffy dogs. Her literary-horror novel White Horse--coming from Flatiron Books on November 1, 2022--straddles this world and the next, where both gritty and mystical elements operate on the same plane.

How did this story start for you? Was there a particular detail or element that came to you first?

I was that kid who read dorky dragon books in math class under the desk. I needed that escape. My dad was an alcoholic, and often took his own garbage out on me and my mother. But also, I just loved spaceships and elves and ghosts.

But when I went to college, I started reading "serious" literature because even though I had no idea what that meant, I'd always wanted to be a writer, and "real" writers read "serious" literature. I remember having a conversation about how I wanted to write my senior thesis on Stephen King's work. I got just laughed at. By the time I earned my doctorate in literature and creative writing and became a professor of creative writing, I'd become fully indoctrinated. I was exclusively reading, writing and teaching literary realism. No dragons.

Eventually, however, I missed all that speculative stuff, and I realized that I could incorporate what I loved--good, creepy material--with what was literary. Because "literary" is not a genre, it's a series of conventions. Complex characterization. Depth of theme. Attention to form and language.

However, wrapping back around to the personal, some of the content is inspired by something that happened to my grandmother, who died when I was very young. I'd been told that she'd misfired a gun, thinking there was a robber in the neighborhood. Which never made sense--she'd been around guns all her life. Then I was told she suicided. Years later, my mother was told by a neighbor, who'd been a cop, that her death certificate seemed doctored--that it looked as if my grandfather had murdered her. The novel took a very different turn, but that whole strange, winding, confusing, unresolved story has stayed with me.

Can you talk a little bit about your process of marrying Native folklore and ghost story elements in this novel?

Beyond the kind of indoctrination one gets in literature classes, part of why I wanted to write in the vein of realism for so long was that I often felt that literature by Native people that incorporated elements of magical realism wasn't for me. It wasn't gritty and real--I respected novels that spoke to the everyday realities, the meat and bones, of Native existence. However, on the other side of things, the Native lit I read in the '90s and early '00s didn't speak to the fun, spooky, ghosts-are-real-in-this-book side of literature I'd so loved as a young person.

But reading Rebecca Roanhorse, Daniel H. Wilson, Stephen Graham Jones--and listening to my own family's stories (my grandmother's visions, my mom smelling my father in her room years after his death)--made my brain eventually get where it needed to go. I wanted to write literature that incorporated what my family had told me, what I'd learned in reclaiming stories of the nations I descend from, alongside my own completely imagined material. And then I wanted to marry that to the grittier elements of urban Indian life I'd grown up in and around in Denver and the outlying areas. And this is how Kari, my heavy-metal, horror-loving protagonist, was born.

The Lofa--Kari's nemesis in the novel--is a sort of evil Chickasaw Bigfoot. Some of the stories of the Lofa say that he kidnaps women. That he skins folks and eats their skin. He's wonderfully creepy, and a perfect metaphor for what I was trying to get at in the novel. I understand why Native people choose to write about, say, vampires. It's safer, and our communities are understandably sensitive about those stories being out there in the world. However, I'm aligned with Roanhorse in this regard, because if we're stuck with European monsters, there's a way in which we're still colonized. What could be better, more original, more respectful than allowing those stories out of the bottle, and letting them grow, the way our ancestors intended them to do?

Aside from Stephen King, whose book The Shining is a huge presence in the plot, who were the authors you wanted to channel here?

Beyond the authors I mentioned above, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Grady Hendrix are IT for me in horror. In general, I'm loving the direction Native fiction is moving. In realism you have Brandon Hobson and Kelli Jo Ford, and of course, Tommy Orange. In crime, my partner, David Heska Wanbli Weiden. And Shane Hawk is an Indigenous horror writer to watch. Jenn Givhan, a writer of Pueblo descent, is about to knock readers on their collective asses.

Without revealing too much to readers, can you speak to how you decided to craft the really original climactic scene you have in this novel?

As somebody who read exclusively literary fiction for a long, long time--not that some of those folks aren't brilliant--the climax in many literary realism novels is often like, "and then he was sad, internally." I realized that if I wanted to achieve an effective climax on the action-based level AND on the emotional level, I had to work on thinking about how to break my character emotionally in such a way that she was forced to change--and then find a way to illustrate that in a compelling, parallel, physical way--that wasn't silly. It took many drafts.

I think this relates to structure--something that isn't much talked about in literary circles. Mainly, it's language. Character if you're lucky. Lots of amorphous statements about form. It was my partner who told me that what I was looking for was in more nuts-and-bolts craft books: Save the Cat, Chuck Wendig's Damn Fine Story, Ben Percy's Thrill Me and Jane Cleland's Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot were lifesavers. And back around to how this affects the climax, my boyfriend (a literary-thriller writer) went over that scene with me beat by beat, so that I could strike that physical and internal climax. And then I changed it again. And again. And I'd already changed it so many times by the time we'd even gone over it the first time.

The thing I'd like to leave folks with is: read. Read widely--and read passionately. And don't be afraid to treat the work as work, to get in there like a mechanic. Good on the poetry part. But it's 75% tearing the car apart. And it's so important to part from your peers when you know what they're telling you isn't right for you. And at the same time, to not be a stubborn ass, especially when you're younger, but really at any age, when it comes to making your work better, when folks with experience are genuinely trying to help you make it better. And for Native writers especially, follow your own vision. This is not the time to be afraid. --Alice Martin

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