In Erika T. Wurth’s new novel, “White Horse,” a woman walks into a bar ... and then things get really weird.
The woman is our protagonist: Kari James. The bar is an establishment she frequents: the White Horse. The weird is a fascinating lot: ghosts, a monster, an unsolved crime, shocking family secrets and a bracelet.
This is the kind of book that opens with a killer hook and never lets up. Wurth has us in the palm of her hands, and there is no escaping the allure that follows. “White Horse” joins the ranks of exceptional literary generational dramas, like Pat Conroy’s “Prince of Tides” and, more recently, Gabriela Garcia’s “Of Women and Salt,” that hint at an underlying mystery that pulses beneath the threads tying the novel together. What it specifically shares with these titles is a banger of an opening chapter that lets you know that you’re embarking on a journey and that there will be many secrets shared before it’s over.
In this opening chapter, we are introduced to Kari in the White Horse, in conversation with her cousin and closest living friend, Debby, who is very excited about a bracelet that she found that belonged to Kari’s mother. Debby is convinced that there is something strange and perhaps supernatural about the bracelet. When she gives it to Kari, this proves to be more than accurate. Kari’s contact with the bracelet opens up a portal of sorts, allowing the ghost of her mother into her life. However, all this supernatural energy also might make her daughter prey to something else, something bloodthirsty and vicious.
The bracelet leads Kari on a quest to uncover the truth of her mother’s disappearance, reopening a case long buried and exposing deadly secrets long kept silent. The journey ultimately leads to self-discovery and healing, but there is a harrowing and difficult road filled with fear and trauma that must first be overcome.
While the book has elements of a generational family drama, “White Horse” is also a ferocious literary horror with very sharp teeth. Wurth manages to inject plenty of humanity and heart so that when it becomes apparent what, and who, is at the center of the narrative’s haunting, the horror becomes even more personal.
In keeping with the merging and twisting of genres and expectations (making “White Horse” delightfully challenging to categorize), Wurth’s novel is also a work of crime fiction and a compelling mystery to boot.
I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Wurth speak at a Nov. 8 event at Elliot Bay Bookstore, in conversation with local horror expert Sadie Hartmann. Host “Mother Horror” Hartmann led Wurth down a discussion about their shared passion for literary horror, allowing Wurth a chance to offer a clearer perspective on her process and her inspirations behind “White Horse.”
It was at Elliot Bay that Wurth summed up the genre’s purpose and potential, explaining, “Horror allows you to process your trauma.” Her work demonstrates how, inside a tale teeming with ghosts and monsters, human pain is central, and everything else is in service to the examination of this pain and its roots.
This is the beauty of “White Horse.” The scope of its ambition is redeemed in Wurth’s ability to make all of these elements work seamlessly together. Wurth excels at building tension and a sense of dread for both the supernatural and domestic.
The novel tugs at the heartstrings and confronts sensitive themes like grief, addiction and abuse in blunt yet surprisingly gentle ways. The cast of characters are complex and dynamic, especially Kari, the metal-loving, tell-it-like-it-is, pragmatic, strong-willed lead with a heart of gold, and Debby, her endearingly sentimental, dreamy cousin without whom there would be no story, since she brings the mysterious bracelet into the picture and drags Kari into her waking nightmare. These characters have flaws, and they own up to them. They are all seeking some form of redemption, growth and/or healing. Even the “villains” aren’t cardboard cutouts; the moral compass is blurry here, showcasing the possibility of good even in the worst of us.
The character work is thorough and layered, fueled by music and literature. Songs play such a prominent role that each character has a defining soundtrack. Kari is die-hard metal (Megadeath, Of Feather and Bone), and Debby is throwback preppy (Britney Spears, NSYNC, Tiffany). Even Johnny Cash makes an appearance, adding an enigmatic personality layer to another already perplexing, albeit terrifying, character.
The sound of “White Horse” is a new and exciting mix of genres and moods, like the book itself. There are many references to metal culture, which adds a lot of depth to the ambience and tone of the novel. Like metal, the book is at once aggressive and cathartic. Wurth attacks racism, abuse and addiction with full force, and there is a sensation of a primal scream leading to relief in the story’s arc.
These themes are universal, yet the lens through which they are viewed is distinctly Native. Wurth is an urban Native of Apache, Chickasaw and Cherokee descent and brings her personal history to her work in more ways than one: She is faithful to her Denver/Idaho Springs roots and never shies away from her voice as a Native artist, bringing Kari and her family to life with language that rings true on every page because it is true. This is part of the beauty in her writing; her experience fuels her work by simply existing transparently. When Wurth allows herself to be visible, she tells a story that opens the door for many more Indigenous voices to come, and that is exciting and inspiring in itself.
“White Horse” shines as an homage to the literary horror genre as well: Kari is an avid reader of horror and refers to common tropes throughout. There is especially an abundance of love for Stephen King, and nowhere more apparent than in the nostalgic and delightfully wild chapter that brings one of his seminal works vividly back to life. (Hint: A certain hotel becomes an unexpected character — King fans rejoice!)
Speaking of locations becoming characters, there is no better example than in the White Horse itself. The bar is charming, immediately familiar and cozy as hell. At the White Horse, whiskey is served, heart-to-hearts abound, memories are revisited and ghosts make themselves at home. By the time the book reaches its final act, we are rooting for the White Horse as much as for Kari. Wurth, in her admiration for King, manages to accomplish what he did with the Overlook decades ago — a high compliment for a writer who based her college senior thesis on none other than the King.
“White Horse” is not just one of this year’s best horror novels. It is one of this year’s best novels. Period. Read it and buckle up for a wild ride (quite literally, sometimes; there are heart-in-your-throat scenes set in cars and roller coasters), and get ready to finish this book wanting more. Wurth’s writing is like a hit of nicotine to the system: intoxicating, dangerous and sneakily addictive.
Johannes Saca is a writer living in Seattle. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JohannesSaca.
Header image by Pixabay user elljay.
Read more of the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2022 issue.