The story and themes in White Horse were promising enough, their execution however ultimately is somewhat of a letdown. That is not to say that White Horse is not worth reading as I do think that it does have value in terms of entertainment and in its discussions of trauma, self-destructiveness, and survival.
Our narrator is Kari James, an Indigenous woman who is into heavy metal, grunge clothes, and horror books. On the surface, she enjoys a carefree lifestyle but we are given glimpses of her troubled past and her present-day worries. She works at the White Horse, a bar that has come to symbolize more than ‘just’ a workplace to her. We learn that during her teens she lost her closest friend, that her mother died when she was small, and that a car accident left her father permanently disabled. So, despite what her cousin and her husband think, Kari has a lot on her plate. Kari’s life is complicated further by the resurfacing of an old bracelet, which apparently belonged to her mother…soon she begins sighting sinister apparitions, such as her dead mother, and sensing an ominous presence. To break free of this, Kari can no longer let sleeping dogs lie, and has no choice left but to venture into her mother’s past, finding out more about her mother’s side of the family, her parents’ marriage, and her mother’s role as an activist.
On paper, this type of story should have really been my thing as Kari had the potential of being the kind of gritty main character that makes me think of Elizabeth Hand, Stephen Graham Jones, and even Grady Hendrix. It just so happens that the story tries to juggle too many elements, and wastes way too much energy (ie page time) on the least interesting dynamic and characters (debbie and her generically controlling and uncouth husband). Also, given the length and pace of the story, I do think that some of the side plotlines should have been dropped as they were not given the time/depth they deserve. Take Kari’s dead friend. She does ‘haunt’ Kari’s thoughts now and again but her character, in addition to being very underdeveloped and the kind of very generic ‘cool edgy possibly a bit of a bad influence’ friend you see time and again in books & films (like thirteen) seemed to be used as a cautionary tale for Kari, which seemed a wee bit unfair to the friend. Kari’s mother also functions as a plot device more than anything. Even the supernatural element is delivered in a rather bathetic way, which is a pity as I think that it really had potential in terms of building and maintaining a certain atmosphere. Debbie’s plotline was just so grating. She has the most generic whiny personality and for most of the novel is shown to be a rather wishy-washy type of person who tells Kari off for defending herself against her drunk husband. In the end, instead, we are shown that she was at some point a decent friend to Kari but by then she had gotten on my nerves so much so that I just wanted her off the page. Her controlling husband is even more generic and cartoonish than she is and seemed to exist only to (supposedly) add tension to the story, given his friction and heated showdowns with Kari. The last section of the story really double-downs on paying homage to Stephen King’s The Shining, even if Erika T. Wurth does view his work through a more critical lens (and is able to discuss tropes related to indigenous peoples and cultures in the horror genre). If the story had solely focused on Kari and her past ‘ghosts’ (her mother, her friend) I would have found this novel much more engrossing. Kari herself was the kind of character I would usually really root for, but much of her characterisation here relies on her grungy aesthetics and her responses to other people saying/doing things, that is to say, that she seemed at times more a vehicle through which the author could tell this story than a character in her own right.
Still, even if the plotline unfolded in a fairly predictable way and included scenes that felt like unnecessary filler (we have that scene where kari is on the phone with debbie and the line isn’t good so of course, she misunderstands her and jumps to a certain conclusion…) and both the characters and the supernatural element left me wanting, I still found myself engaged in Wurth’s storytelling.
Even if I may have not been enamoured with the final product, White Horse definitely had some good ingredients and considering this is Wurth’s debut I am really looking forward to reading more by her.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
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