Native noir

Credit: Michael Teak

Indigenous art is finally having its long-overdue moment in American culture. From TV shows Reservation Dogs and Dark Winds with predominantly Native American casts, to novels from Colorado writers like Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Woman of Light and Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, the range of Indigenous voices and perspectives has never been more prominently featured in mainstream art.

 Now add another important work: Erika T. Wurth’s White Horse. Released Nov. 1 via Flatiron Books, it’s a horror novel about an Indigenous woman’s quest to discover the truth of her family’s past after coming upon an artifact haunted by her mother’s spirit.

As an urban Native writer of Apache, Chickasaw and Cherokee descent, Wurth says this cultural moment is a chance for Indigenous people and the rest of the country to experience the depth and diversity of their art on a larger scale.

“For Native readers and watchers, it’s an opportunity to finally see ourselves on the screen and page,” she says. “For everyone else, it’s an opportunity to enjoy the genuinely good work that we do and were always capable of doing.”

A hard-boiled tour

Through the novel’s tough, noir-ish narration, we meet Kari James — a 35-year-old bartender from Denver who loves Stephen King, Megadeth and drinking at the White Horse Bar. The story kicks off when her cousin Debby gives her a bracelet that invokes visions of Kari’s mysteriously disappeared mother and a Chickasaw boogeyman called the Lofa. Kari then embarks on a quest to discover what happened to her mom.

The quest leads her to several area landmarks, including Denver dive bars, the kitschy and run down Lakeside Amusement Park and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, the original inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, where Wurth pays homage to the author’s influence on her work.

Wurth, who lives in Denver, knows the landscape well, having spent time in these places at various ages in her life. She views this novel in part as a homage to old Denver, which she sees as dying.

“For example, the White Horse Bar has been bought and will certainly be bulldozed over,” Wurth says.

To research the Stanley Hotel section, the writer took her niece along and stayed in an allegedly haunted room that she describes in the book.

“Which supposedly has an angry white man who glares at you from the corners, and might scratch you,” she says. “We brought him a spirit plate, and every time we talked to him, thanking him for letting us stay in his room, the light flickered.”

Throughout the book it’s clear Wurth is pulling from an intimate knowledge of the region and its people to shape the narrative, from the depth of the characterization to the Colorado landmarks.

Take, for instance, this passage:

“Walking through Lakeside was like moving into a bygone era. The faded yellow entrance with ‘Lakeside’ in cursive — yellow and orange sunbeams shooting out of the lettering — was peeling, and the building hadn’t been the bright white of the past for many, many years. But my past was still there, a past that belonged in a city that in ways no longer existed. In the dream I’d had with my mother, Lakeside had been young, bright, beautiful.”

Courtesy: Flatiron Books

‘Portal to another world’

The impetus for White Horse came from a mystery around the death of Wurth’s grandmother. The story had been that she died by suicide, but after a police officer looked at the death certificate, Wurth’s mother was told that the paperwork looked doctored, and it was possible her husband had murdered her.

“The disagreement around what happened in my family is a tension that’s obviously penetrated into my very psyche,” she says.

Wurth says she chose to write this story as a horror novel because she sees herself primarily as a paranormal writer.

“I love the idea of a portal to another world,” Wurth adds. “It allows me to express the darker parts of the gritty realism that I wrote in before, but it allows all of that dark magic that I adored as a child in as well.”

As evidenced by the work of film director Jordan Peele and novelist Gabino Iglesias, horror as a genre can be a powerful lens into the American experience, and in particular, the experience of BIPOC Americans. 

“The commonality is the exposure to historical genocide, colonization and slavery — parts of history that BIPOC people have in common that follow us to this day,” Wurth says. “Horror allows people to express, metaphorically, the big and small fears that they have on a very human level, and a very political level, in a way that’s productive and cathartic.” 

Several factors have contributed to the appetite for amplified voices from BIPOC creators in the cultural discourse. One example Wurth cites is the Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, which helped shed light on discrepancies in how much certain writers were paid versus others, often showing that people of color were getting short shrift. 

Protest movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock have also played a role, according to Wurth. But it’s not just readers who are hungry for more stories from BIPOC communities in the wake of these culture-shifting social uprisings. 

“Publishers too are realizing that they’re not going to make the money that they’re complaining about not making unless they actually allow diverse voices in the country to read,” she says. 

Already missing Halloween? Here are five horror, dark fantasy, or dark crime novels Erika T. Wurth loves: 

1. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia. “It’s smart, it’s fun and it’s just wonderfully weird. (The bad guy is a mushroom). I love that the main character is a person of Indigenous descent who is saucy and smart, and that the novel takes place in Mexico in the ’50s.” 

2. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. “I think Roanhorse has single-handedly changed Native American literature. This novel is imaginative and brilliantly executes multiple points of view, but it also gives you a ticket to a magical version of Maya territory that’s almost nostalgic.”

3. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. “Essentially, Hendrix could write a novel every three months and I would just read his work until I was dead or he was. So, glad he isn’t doing that. This book is visceral. A feminist tour de force, it addresses race in possibly the smartest and fairest way I’ve ever seen a non-BIPOC person do — and on top of [that], it’s one of those novels you tear through because you absolutely have to get to the end.” 

4. Ring Shout by P Djèlí Clark. “Clark is normally a fantasy writer, and he’s also a professor like me, but this novella is horror. And it’s the sharpest discussion, and the most organic and perversely fun one, when it comes to racism in the South during the civil rights era I’ve ever read. There are swords. Other worlds. African American gods and goddesses. It’s a killer.” 

5. Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. “Full disclosure, Weiden is my partner—but he’s also the wildly talented thriller author of a novel that follows Virgil, a vigilante on the Rosebud reservation. He’s been nominated for countless crime and literary awards, and there’s a reason. This is just a killer novel.”

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