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'White Horse' is about supernatural horrors — and everyday horrors

Erika T. Wurth's White Horse
Flatiron Books

Erika T. Wurth's White Horse belongs to the new wave of horror fiction that delivers the creepiness and darkness readers have always associated with the genre, while also packing plenty of social commentary.

Also — and perhaps more importantly — White Horse is a horror novel that subverts one of the elements at the core of the genre from the beginning: Instead of the writer being someone who is afraid of the other, the writer is the other.

Kari James is an Urban Native living near Denver. She loves heavy metal, idolizes Dave Mustaine, dresses mostly in black, and loves horror fiction. Kari spends her days working at different bars, taking care of her father, who suffered brain damage in a car accident, hanging out with her cousin Debby, and drinking at a bar called White Horse. However, her relatively simple life is marred by her mother's absence. Kari's mother, Cecilia, abandoned her and supposedly died mysteriously when she was a baby — and her memory has haunted Kari ever since. Kari's father is in no shape to offer clarifying information.

Also, Kari constantly worries about her father, her cousin Debby's marriage to a hard-drinking, manipulative man, and the death of her best friend years before, which she thinks she could have prevented. When Debby hands Kari a traditional bracelet that once belonged to Cecilia, Kari starts seeing ghosts, having horrible nightmares, and having gruesome visions of her mother and a tall, shadowy creature known as the Lofa. The visions refuse to go away and Kari soon becomes convinced her mother is trying to tell her something about what happened to her. Looking for answers and a clearer idea of what happened to her mother, Kari embarks on a journey that brings her closer to her roots — and to her mother's life and mysterious ending.

White Horse is about supernatural horrors and everyday horrors. As Kari learns to cope with the visions of her mother's bloody, screaming ghost and the menacing presence of the monster that haunts her, she is also forced to deal with Debby's controlling husband and the way he keeps getting in their way and wedging himself between them at all times. Also, her worrying about her father is constant and the grief and guilt she feels about her best friend's death are always present. It pops up to the surface of her psyche to attack her regularly, especially after she sees her friend's ghost outside a bowling alley. The mixture of supernatural menace and real life darkness works well, in part because Wurth's pacing is superb and the darkness of the narrative is relentless; it's never bogged down by unnecessary details or empty dialogue.

Wurth does many things well in White Horse. The dialogue is snappy and to the point and the descriptions are short and effective. Also, the story hits the ground running and builds as it moves forward, but it never slows down and there is no time wasted on long setups or introducing every character. Instead, readers get to know everyone involved organically as the narrative moves forward. The result is a 320-page novel that's an easy, fast read and that almost demands to be devoured in a single sitting.

Wurth, an Urban Native of Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee descent who was raised outside of Denver and still lives in the area, brings Denver and a few nearby towns to the page with authenticity. Her identity is clearly a lens through which the narrative is told, keeping the history of Native Americans in the area, and in the entire United States, present at all times. Also, places like Colfax Avenue and the Tattered Cover bookstore show up a few times, along with many local bars and businesses — not to mention a few appearances of Stephen King's The Shining, which takes place in Colorado in the 1970s. Taken together, these things and places make White Horse a quintessentially Denver novel that does for that area of Colorado what the work of James Ellroy has done for Los Angeles or what Philip Roth's oeuvre did for Newark.

Kari is a unique character that pulls readers in and never lets go. She's strong and independent, but also strangely fragile and flawed. Her love for her father is heartwarming and her grief about her best friend's death is touching, but she's also wrong about Debby's situation, quick to anger, and foulmouthed, all of which contribute to making her more believable. As Kari pushes forward against her family, her instincts and, eventually, even the FBI to find out what happened to her mother, it is impossible not to root for her, and that empathy is precisely what makes this horror story work. Wurth has created a strong Urban Native character, and in the process — and while talking about the folklore of various tribes and the American Indian Movement — has pushed against narratives that perpetuate Native American clichés, which makes this a must-read.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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