White Horse and a Scary Start

reading like a writer

Erika T. Wurth's White Horse is a horror novel about lost mothers, monsters, and generational trauma. The narrator is Kari, an Urban Indian woman who lives in Denver.

I'm interested in the first scene and how it both introduces and connects the book's primary objects and themes, while layering the strange with the mundane to create a creepy, tingly sense of the uncanny.

Here's the opening:

There was something strange, mysterious even, about the White Horse tonight. Normally, it was merely an Indian bar. My Indian bar. But there was 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.

"Debby, do we have to talk about her again?" I took another swig of my beer and slammed it back down, eyeing my cousin as I did. She would never let this subject go, no matter how much I rebuffed her.

A lot of work is being done to make sure we register this bar as ordinary. It's not only "merely an Indian bar," but Kari claims it as her regular spot. The dialogue tells us that she's not only in a familiar place but a familiar conversation. Even taking "another" sip puts us in mind of repetition, of the same thing happening many times and through time. When the tense shifts into "she would never let this subject go," the everyday-ness of the scene extends even to the future.

And yet despite all of these reassurances of life as usual, there is something very strange happening. We are told about this in the first sentence, rather than made to feel it, which seems purposeful. We're quickly warned something is up, but Wurth makes sure we understand the bar's ordinariness before we truly experience the mystery of this night.

Then, as soon as we're made comfortable--only two sentences later--the mystery becomes tangible in its milkiness and the red color and the motion of the swinging lights. Sensory details like this are a way to pin down feelings and inklings, even if we don't yet know what they mean.

In a functional sense, the immediate strangeness is brilliant because it answers the question of "Why this night?" as a place to start. And the everyday-ness is functional too. It means we get to meet the characters in their regular lives before their world upends.

But there's more to the scene than simple function. Layering the mundane with the magical asks the reader to hold both at the same time. It might create a brain explosion that deepens the scene in a profound way--I'm always looking for ways to achieve that brain explosion.

It's also a way of defamiliarizing both the mundane and the magical, bringing them to the same scene and making us wonder, truly, which one is which. It's a method of defamiliarizing the world itself when we leave the story and notice new strangeness in what looked comfortable just moments ago.

I think it also invokes the uncanny to create a scene that is almost safe and known--but not quite. That in itself can inspire a few chills.

The rest of the chapter keeps this feel of an ordinary night that is slightly off and then increases the danger. We soon learn that the off-limits topic is the narrator's long-missing mother, and that Debbie has found a bracelet that belonged to her. Several times, the strange feeling in the bar is linked to the mother and to the bracelet.

It first happens subtly, as in the first paragraph, when that wind sweeps in a strange feeling and the off-limits subject: "Like the wind from the open doors was bringing them something new, something I'd pushed away for as long as I could remember." A little later, when Kari learns that Debbie has found something of her mother's, "the dreamy quality snapped back."

Later yet, Debbie says, "But the important part is, like, when she found it? When I picked it up, I felt weird." The cadence of Debbie's speech feels like real life. Her upspeak is like she's fighting to keep this revelation light. She's not committing to anything too scary, at least not yet.

But I notice it's not that the bracelet itself felt weird, but that she felt weird when she held it. Which is really creepy! For an object to make you feel weird suggests there is something not right about it. The wording also suggests that whatever is wrong is felt rather than observed with the usual five senses. We're getting into ghostly territory here.

Pretty soon, the linking--and the strangeness--intensify. When Debbie finally hands over the bracelet, Kari inspects it, describing its make and likely origins, and details the various figures carved into it.

And lastly, something that made me ill just looking at it--a stick figure that seemed to represent a monster of some sort. In the back of my mind, I could almost remember the name for it.

My thoughts wandered, unbidden, to my mother.

* * *

But though I tried to focus on everything but that bracelet, it began burning into my mind, glowing almost, roping me to thoughts of my mother and my painful, locked-away past.

And so the first chapter has linked together so much! The bracelet connects to Kari's missing mother, as well as to this horrible feeling, as well as to the mundane and Kari's everyday life. I think that makes the horror more intense. If it's in the mundane, it's inescapable.