Recently, we’ve seen the publication of several horror/thriller genre benders. These tend to be a bit divisive among readers. Thriller fans bemoan that these novels are too horror to be a thriller, and horror fans complain, claiming the opposite to be true. Personally, I think they’re a load of fun. Who doesn’t love a good, dark whodunit with horror elements?
In a continuation of this trend, Erika T. Wurth’s White Horse fits this bill. This debut novel focuses on urban Native Kari James, a metalhead with a love of horror novels and a whole bunch of trauma. However, things changes when cousin Debby gives Kari an old heirloom of her mother’s. Now, the mother’s ghost haunts her. It seems that she wants Kari to find out what happened to her. What will Kari discover? And what do those revelations have to do with the circumstances of her life?
If you’re already thinking that sounds more complicated than I make it sound, you’re on the right track. White Horse tackles some really deep topics. In that sense, it’s once again a pretty ambitious debut novel. The plot deals directly with the phenomenon of missing and murdered indigenous women, the American Indian Movement, addiction, grief, poverty, and more. Truth be told, I’m surprised at how deeply Wurth was able to explore these themes while keeping the rapid pace of her thriller plot.
Even more impressive, however, was Wurth’s sense of place in White Horse. This book lives and breathes Colorado. You can always tell that the author really loves these locations: a gentrifying Denver, the poorer Idaho Springs, the local carnival, and more. I’ve barely been to Colorado, but reading this book made me believe that I was there myself. In many ways, White Horse succeeds in that old chestnut of transporting the reader to another world. This world happens to be closer to our reality, but it also manages to be one tinged in the author’s emotions and mindset.
In terms of plot, White Horse also delivers. The haunting scenes in the book really convey just how shocking and traumatic the ghosts of the past can be. This is more difficult than it sounds. Once you establish that a ghost isn’t there to physically harm a character, it becomes much harder to get your audience scared or invested. However, because Wurth works extremely hard to show the emotional consequences in Kari’s headspace, we still feel tense, even scared. Sure, the mother’s ghost refuses to attack her daughter. Nevertheless, every sighting of a bloody specter still derails Kari’s life. Plus, the other supernatural being from the bracelet is far more nefarious Cecilia James
Speaking of Kari, Wurth does a great job creating a strong main character. When I say “strong,” I don’t mean physically strong or “badass.” I mean a character who carries real depth, displays humanity, and changes throughout the narrative. For some readers, Kari’s path to confront her trauma rather than run from it or bury it deep inside her may feel too familiar. However, considering the themes of the book, her character development fits perfectly with the story White Horse wants to tell.
If the book carries one weakness, if any, it lies in the pacing. White Horse moves quick. On the one hand, this can be a good thing. The inciting incident, the inheritance of the bracelet, appears basically at the very beginning of the book. From the get go, ghosts and other supernatural shenanigans descend and cause havoc on the fragile plateau of Kari’s life. However, as the book progresses, some might start to need some breathing room. Perhaps the side characters and emotional impact of certain reveals would hit harder if the pace wasn’t so rapid. Nevertheless, if you’re in the mood for a quick read that grips you and won’t let you go, this could instead be the book’s greatest strength.
Don’t be fooled, though. Fast paced or not, White Horse refuses to let you go easy. This novel packs a serious punch of ambition with a critical eye to match. If you’re looking for a thriller that carries a brain with a whole lot of affection for the genre, pick up this beauty anywhere books are sold.
Lyana Rodriguez (they/them) is a queer Cuban-American writer living in Miami, Florida. Their greatest interests include monsters, animals, nature writing, and staring way too long at the birds in their garden. You can find more of Lyana’s writing in their intersectional horror blog, Dark Intersections.