White Horse: Justice for the Dead -- With Dave Mustaine
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Last night, I was about two-thirds of the way into Erika T. Wurth's White Horse. I dabbed cleanser on my face and scrubbed at my makeup while my wife sat on the side of the tub. "I'm less than a hundred pages from the end," I bemoaned, my wing-tip eyeliner smearing with my peacock-hued eyeshadow until I looked like a prostitute-turned-zombie. "I still feel like I'm missing something. I'm enjoying the hell out of it, but I worry that I'm missing what the core of this book is really about. I don't want to write a review where I just shrug and say 'I dunno. I liked it' like a dork."
"Maybe it'll come together as you get to the end," Nicole told me. "Maybe what you're missing is just something you haven't come across yet."
Now, having finished the book, I feel like I get it a bit more. This is a horror novel, yes. (Surprise, surprise.) But White Horse is, at its core, about a strong woman, bred from strong women. A woman who spends decades running from abandonment, from a cycle of abuse and torment so beyond her own control that she didn't even know it existed. Lashing herself with guilt and anger that didn't belong to her. This is about her journey, picking up the pieces, and making herself whole again.
It's also about monsters.
When Kari James starts out, she's thirty-five, single, childless, and likes it that way. Her mother disappeared when she was only two days old, and her father suffered brain damage in an accident, forcing her to care for her father rather than the other way around. She works two jobs in Denver, an Urban Native of Chickasaw and Apache descent. Drinks a little too much. Smokes a little too much. She avoids being close to anyone since her best friend ODed a decade ago. But then, her cousin and one friend, Debby, finds an old Native bracelet of her mother's among some boxes, and everything changes. Kari begins seeing her mother's dead form, sobbing, pleading for help. She begins dreaming vivid images of a tall, hairy creature that flays the skin from her body. And always, the dreams leave behind the scent of scotch and rotting meat. What is Kari's mother trying to tell her, and can she figure out what really happened to her before it's too late?
Kari James as a Protagonist
First, let me just say that Kari James has no man, Kari James needs no man. She lives her life as she chooses, owns up to her mistakes when she makes them, and doesn't buy into the false narrative that a woman is defined by her husband and children. Wurth writes Kari with heart and a certain je ne sais quoi that is enhanced by her imperfections, not diminished by them. This is a woman who was forced to grow up at a dead run compared to other children, simply because she learned a hard lesson early: she lost everyone she loved. She grew up believing her mother, who had disappeared when she was an infant, had abandoned her to party somewhere. Her father, grief-stricken, took to drinking and driving. While his body remains mostly intact, his mind is mostly fried, and he was unable to be a parent to her. She lost her best friend, Jaime, to drugs -- drugs Kari was on at the time, too. But Kari managed to clean up her act, and soldiered ahead, her cousin Debby as her only real ally and friend in a cold world that had denied her every other relationship she'd ever had.
When she first starts having visions of her mother, she's repulsed. That bitch abandoned her; it was because of her that Kari's father had his accident. When she takes her visions to a friend, Kari only decides to pursue them because she's told that the bracelet could potentially heal her father. That dim hope in mind, Kari forges ahead. The more of the narrative she uncovers, however, the harder it becomes to hate her mother. Her mother, the strong woman with sass and spirit who fought for Native rights in Colorado. Who loved her family fiercely, and who, far from abandoning anyone to go off and party -- was taken from them in some sort of nameless tragedy related to this beast Kari keeps seeing in her dreams, and even in her waking hours.
Kari metamorphoses through the process of this book. It isn't that she finds true love and settles in with her prince for a life in the suburbs. (Sorry, my wife watched Enchanted this morning, and the music's still in my head.) She approaches everything she's been running from, one by one, calling each one of her demons by name and facing them down, trepidatious but determined to prevail. And by the end, she's different. She's still fiercely independent, brave, and metal as hell. She's still stubborn. But she's discovered herself, and finally isn't afraid. She's finally at peace to move forward, to love, and be loved. To invest in her future, to set aside old wounds, and to reach out to the family she never knew she had.
I relate so much to Kari, despite the fact that I don't particularly pray to Dave Mustaine or any of the Metal gods. I relate to the mild frustration that some parents can see anyone who doesn't have children as somehow playing the game of Life on Easy Mode, when that's not the case at all. I've learned the lesson that sometimes, you spend your thirties making up for all the things that happened before that. That sometimes, in order to heal, you have to fight like hell until your fingers bleed from scratching out the eyes of your demons. I've learned that thirty-five is not too late to discover who you are, or where you're going. And that you should always believe people when they tell you who they are.
The Role of Abuse
I can't talk too much about this in detailed terms, as it contains significant spoilers for the plot. I will say, however, that there are two primary figures depicting different types of abuse in this story. The first is Jack, Debby's super-controlling husband. The second is a character that appears later on, one that I will not name, and instead will be referring to as "JP," short for "Jackass Pedophile."
I love how Wurth writes Jack. Real abuse isn't cut-and-dry. It's almost never a cartoon villain with a beer in one hand and a billy club in the other. Real abuse doesn't always involve physical violence. Mine didn't. I was never hit a day in my life, but the way Jack talks to his wife? The way he gaslights her, turns her against anyone who isn't him, tries to manipulate her until he's her only lifeline? I'm quite familiar with that narrative. And Debby keeps saying, "he's a good guy." Well, maybe he is. And at first blush, he doesn't seem so bad. Sure, he drinks too much, but he knows when he's gone too far, he tells his wife he loves her, he apologizes when he needs to. He sounds so... reasonable. And damnit, I believe that he loves his wife. But to quote my therapist with words that some of you may need to remember: "you can love someone and still abuse them." I'll say it again.
You can love someone and still abuse them.
You can abuse someone and not know it.
You can abuse someone and have the best intentions in the world.
All of that is Jack. An insecure, fragile, drunk man who loves his wife and would do anything for her -- but he'd also do anything to keep her.
JP also loves his family. But that doesn't stop him from molesting his children at the hands of alcohol. It doesn't stop him from becoming violent and dangerous. It doesn't stop the monster inside from springing forth from him whether he likes it or not, and it is not love of his family that makes him want to cover his sins. The details of this aren't ever really explained, and the balance of "spiritual" versus "literal" versus "metaphorical" is not something I'm fully clear on. But this is a great opportunity to read the book and see what I mean. Feel free to pass on your interpretation!
On Becoming Whole Again
Toward the end of the book, there's a line Wurth writes that tore me into scraps and scattered the pieces across my living room: "But I don't realize that healing requires scars, and I am still rough beneath them, I still have pain locked behind that ropy skin."
Healing requires scars.
In order to heal, we have to let our grief, our regret, our trauma fundamentally change us. This is the ultimate theme of this book, in my own limited opinion. We are an amalgam of what has been, what is, and those things combine every day as we perpetually become ourselves. I know, I know, that sounds very philosophical. I'm sure Foucault called and wants his drugs back. But Kari becomes who she is based on her pain, and taking on guilt that wasn't hers to bear. Who she is by the end is based on the union of the fact that these traumas happened, and the fact that she was able to make them a part of her and let them go. Wurth approaches this theme in such a fearless, tender way, you can tell as a reader that she, herself, is a survivor who knows a thing or two about the subject.
Indigenous Badassery and Heavy Metal
I read White Horse this week for a reason. As I said in an earlier blog, November is Native American Heritage Month. Now, we need to be lifting up the Native narrative every month. The Native tribes in this country have been oppressed and murdered, and had everything right down to their very land stolen from them in favor of white people powered by entitlement and Manifest Destiny. America has systematically erased them and their stories and culture from common knowledge for literal centuries. The absolute least I can do is spend my Thanksgiving lifting up the stories of Native writers (who plainly don't need the help of a blog no one reads, but I digress).
Wurth's style and flair in White Horse is distinctively Native, and she embraces the culture of Denver's Native population with the love of someone who knows it by heart. She embraces the history of both Apache and Chickasaw, and she taught me several things I didn't know (which isn't much, because like I said, erasure.) Wurth portrays Kari, an "urban Indian" who didn't grow up on a Reservation, and still shows how they, too, are valid members of their community even without such close cultural ties. She also shows just how much one can still embrace that heritage, and how much they own it. She invokes the spiritual significance of Geronimo himself, great hero to the Apache, and I deeply like the idea that Kari, who is of mixed heritage and didn't grow up on a reservation, can be just as much the heir to his legacy as anyone else. It brings my heart joy. The other distinct flavor is of heavy metal music. Kari is a lover of metal of just about any kind, and my god, she has opinions (like we all do when we're both passionate and knowledgable.) She can be found at almost any moment in boots, tight jeans, and a band t-shirt, and the book is littered with references to the music she's listening to, how it emotionally affected her and her life, and the occasional prayer to the lead singer and only consistent member of Megadeth, Dave Mustaine. I love this detail. It makes the entire book feel a little more sharp, Kari a little clearer as a character. Wurth uses White Horse as a love letter to Metal artists, and I love every minute. Combined, the two create a feeling of something altogether different than I typically read, all at once grungier and more raw and beautiful.
The Writing Style
Wurth's writing style is so easy to read, and even easier to stay invested in. Her chapters are short, sometimes less than a page. I found that each one of these chapters were almost exclusively episodic. This had the effect of moving from scene to scene, from plot point to plot point, without getting stuck in the transition and slowing the pace down. I don't know if this is how earlier drafts were composed. Maybe this was the result of exhaustive editing, and maybe it was written in flashes, just to keep the reader on edge.
Speaking of which, I was constantly asking questions. There was always one more detail I wouldn't be satisfied with until I found. Whether it was a name, a relationship, or a story from the past, Wurth is a master of flowing time together and making it so that I'm left wanting just another tidbit. And then another.
The horror isn't terribly graphic, and I found it to be a delightful balance for someone who loves thrillers but dislikes gore. I didn't find that the story progression needed it. There were supernatural elements, real-world elements, and more than enough action and depth to keep me involved. Anything more would have felt gratuitous and unnecessary. Wurth gave the horror factor exactly as much as the book required, and not an ounce more. That may disappoint some of you. Honestly, though, everything was exactly as it needed to be, and while I wasn't scared out of my seat, I was more than happy to be along for the ride.
Her dialogue was excellent and not stilted, she uses her share of profanity, so if that's not your thing, be aware. I found it fascinating how she juxtaposed first-person past tense for the majority of the book, against first-person present tense for Kari's visions. It felt as if the author were trying to bring us into a sense of intimacy with these visions, to feel like we're a part of them, which I found immensely effective. Wurth's pacing was excellent, her climactic showdown one for the ages. I easily churned out a hundred pages a day, and polished the book off in three days.
This book is a winner. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, and every scintillating moment in between. Wurth beckons to her readers with writing that soars above every standard of the genre, enticing both new fans and seasoned horror veterans. It's fearless and unapologetic, a bracing dive into a world of cigarette smoke, Budweiser, and things watching us from the dark. I can't even fathom that this is only her debut in the horror genre. Stay tuned for Erika T Wurth to take over the world. And don't say I didn't warn you.
ANNOUNCEMENT: When I ordered this book, the gods of Powell's decided I needed to have an extra copy. This was before I read the book, and frankly, I was a little afraid of doing a giveaway of a lukewarm book, but I needn't have worried. So! If you're interested in reading White Horse, please leave a comment at the bottom of this post, saying that you'd like to enter my giveaway. Then, go to the main page of Lit Addiction and subscribe using your e-mail! That's it! I will never, never never use your information to do anything but send you e-mails. I will not sell it, I will not harass you, and as an added bonus, I do a giveaway every quarter for my subscribers, of a book I've reviewed -- winner's choice. That's right, kids, I will straight-up buy you a book that I've reviewed in the last quarter and mail it to you at no cost to you, just because I think you're fucking great. And once you're subscribed, you're in every drawing for as long as I'm doing them.
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Taken from my iPhone, with a selection of books I've read, books I haven't read, books I pretend I've read, and books I never intend to read.