Short Story Review: “The Horse Lord” by Lisa Tuttle

(Cover by Rick Sternbach. F&SF, June 1977.)

Who Goes There?

Lisa Tuttle came about in the early ’70s, as part of a new generation of horror authors, though unlike Stephen King and Anne Rice, who would build their reputations as novelists, Tuttle devoted much more energy to her short fiction. She debuted professionally when she hadn’t quite turned twenty yet, and despite having only put out a couple short stories (none of which were up for awards), she would share the second John W. Campbell Astounding Award for Best New Writer with Spider Robinson (the only time so far that this award resulted in a tie). She also won a Nebula for her 1981 story “The Bone Flute,” under controversial circumtances (not because of Tuttle herself but because of a certain fellow nominee, it’s a bit of a story), but her most lauded (and probably most popular) work was done in collaboration. In the ’70s and early ’80s Tuttle worked with George R. R. Martin on what would become something of a fix-up novel, Windhaven, based on two earlier novellas, both of which were Hugo and Nebula nominees.

While Tuttle’s involvement with SFF has been long-running, she seems to be first and foremost a practicioner of horror, especially of the supernatural variety. Due to changes in the market, with how horror novels have thoroughly superseded horror short stories (in influence, if not in quality) for the past four decades, Tuttle’s short fiction has gone relatively underexamined. Even so, her dedication to the genre has not wavered; for the past half-century she has kept the faith.

Tuttle celebrated her 70th birthday last month.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the June 1977 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. “The Horse Lord” has three notable reprints, two of them being single-author collections: first we have A Nest of Nightmares, which collected Tuttle’s horror fiction up to about the mid-’80s, and it’s still in print! We also have a real collector’s item, Stranger in the House: The Collected Supernatural Short Fiction, Volume One, which is a limited edition hardcover and which will cost you a pretty penny if you can even find the damn thing. For anthology sluts like myself we have a meaty volume edited by Stephen Jones, confusingly published under three titles, The Mammoth Book of Terror, The Anthology of Horror Stories, and The Giant Book of Horror. Out of print, but it’s easy to find used.

Enhancing Image

Marilyn and Derek are both writers who have, along with their five kids (partly from Derek’s previous marriage and partly from a tragedy involving a relative), moved to a farm in upstate New York that one of Derek’s ancestors owned once upon a time. I don’t know why horror authors tend to have writers be their protagonists. What’re they trying to tell us? (I’m half-joking, don’t kill me!) The place is a shithole, but supposedly the rural and secluded atmosphere will help with the couple’s writing (they write separately, it’s sadly not a Kuttner-Moore situation). Despite being responsible for getting us to the farm in the first place, and despite it also having been owned by an ancestor of his, Derek is not the protagonist—actually he barely registers as more than a footnote, all things considered. Marilyn is our POV character, which is probably for the best since she’s the one most reluctant about living in this maybe-haunted locale and therefore the one most likely to generate conflict.

“The Horse Lord” is a haunted house story, except it’s not the house itself that’s haunted—it’s the horse stable, which hasn’t been used in many years. The ancestor who had owned the farm in the late 19th century, James Hoskins, was apparently killed by Indians, along with his wife, while his daughter went missing and was never found. Does this sound like the start of The Searchers to anyone? I also find it funny that Kelly, the oldest of the children, is a horse girl, because let’s face it, nothing good ever happens with horse girls. The very first thing we’re told about Kelly is that she loves horses and my first thought was, “This does not bode well for the parents.” I wasn’t wrong, but I’ll get into that in the spoilers section.

The farm would be shrouded in mystery, but luckily (or unluckily) for Marilyn there’s a series of a memoirs written by one of Derek’s uncles about his family history, and there are dusty hardcover copies of these memoirs right in the house. How convenient! The memoirs, which are of course biased, speculate that Hoskins and his wife had been killed by Indians, but if Hoskins’s own words are anything to go by it was not the local indians that got him; maybe it was the spirit which lurked on that plot of land, the genius loci (a phrase I’ve grown fond of very recently) that has had dibs on it for a pretty long time. Hoskins does not take the Indians’ advice, and admittedly if you were in his position you would probably not listen to them either, though probably more from a sense of modern materialism (or lack of superstition) than because your homie Jesus got your back.

Get this:

“The land I have won is of great value, at least to a poor, wandering remnant of Indians. Two braves came to the house yesterday, and my dear wife was nearly in tears at their tales of powerful magic and vengeful spirits inhabiting this land.

“Go, they said, for this is a great spirit, as old as the rocks, and your God cannot protect you. This land is not good for people of any race. A spirit (whose name may not be pronounced) set his mark upon this land when the earth was still new. This land is cursed—and more of the same, on and on until I lost patience with them and told them to be off before I made powerful magic with my old Betsy.

“Tho’ my wife trembled, my little daughter proved fiercer than her Ma, swearing she would chop up that pagan spirit and have it for her supper—which made me roar with laughter, and the Indians to shake their heads as they hurried away.”

“The Horse Lord” indulges in a trope I’m not terribly fond of, and while I assume Tuttle means well, I expected a bit better: it’s the Wise Indians Who Know Better™ trope. It’s especially conspicuous here because Hoskins has no legitimate reason to believe the locals, since they don’t back up anything they say with hard evidence—indeed, it comes off more as several layers of hearsay. Even so, despite being a materialist herself, Marilyn is discomforted by the farm’s history, by the grisly and mysterious deaths of Derek’s ancestors, and by the possibility that something otherworldly owns the abandoned horse stable—something which, if disturbed, might just fuck everyone’s shit up. But since the stable is locked and since surely no one wants to enter it, things will be fine this time, right? Marilyn is a rational and educated person, even if she’s frazzled by the fact that she has to look after five kids, something she did not even imagine until recently.

But will history repeat itself? Let’s see…

There Be Spoilers Here

I appreciate that the stable is not haunted because it was built on an Indian burial ground or something; no, it’s haunted by something else. Marilyn reads more about the doomed James Hoskins and finds that he had been warned by the Wise Indians Who Know Better™ about the genius loci that owns this very particular spot of land, and in typical stupid white man fashion he failed to listen. I feel like even by the ’70s the whole Indian burial ground thing must’ve become a worn-out cliché (which did not stop people from continuing to use it, mind you), so I appreciate the subversion, even if it still relies on writing Indian characters as more symbols of wisdom than actual flesh-and-blood people.

The children have been acting weird lately. As Marilyn becomes more paranoid at the prospect of the horse stable being haunted for realz, she’s not helped when she and Derek find a peculiar chalk drawing in the now-opened stable. Get a load of this:

It was not a horse. After examining it more closely, Marilyn wondered how she could have thought it was the depiction of a wild, rearing stallion. Horses have hooves, not three-pronged talons, and they don’t have such a feline snake of a tail. The proportions of the body were wrong, too, once she looked more carefully.

Derek crouched and ran his fingers along the outline of the beast. It had been done in chalk, but it was much more than just a drawing. Lines must have been deeply scored in the earth, and the narrow trough then filled with some pounded white dust.

Do the adults take the drawing of the horse-like creature as a warning and get the hell out? No, of course not. So you have an idea as to what happens next. Of course, since Our Heroes™ don’t have any horses themselves, the thing that happened to James Hoskins can’t happen to them too, right? Well sort of, no. The story has a twist up its sleeve at the very end, and I have to admit it’s… a little silly. The children, who have started gravitating towards this genius loci which rules over the stable, are then possessed by it, despite not being “animals.” Except according to the story’s logic, or at least something Marilyn speculates right before her presumed demise, children are animals! Very scary. I mean normal children are scary enough, imagine possessed children that (inexplicably) now have super-strength. Not to toot my own horn, or to give the wrong impression, but I would’ve beaten the shit out of those kids easy. Like realistically, fuck them kids. It asks too many logistical questions for me, but I do think the ending have a haunting quality about it, not unlike a similar story I’ll bring up in a moment.

The ending makes me think about the story’s strongest theme, especially for someone like me who’s in his mid-20s, which is the fear of parenthood. Tuttle herself must’ve only been 23 or 24 when she wrote “The Horse Lord,” and right from the beginning there’s Marilyn as the put-upon young woman who suddenly finds herself the mother of five. Things only get worse from there! Like something out of a Shirley Jackson story, the children are depicted as being, at best, sort of distant from their parents, and more often as acting as if they live in another dimension—and it’s not a nice dimension. But whereas Jackson seemed to write about the nightmare world of being a parent from day to day (her child characters often being demons in human skin), there’s more the fear of becoming a parent in “The Horse Lord.” Yeah, I think I can do without raising kids for a long time.

A Step Farther Out

There came a point when I was getting a sense of déjà vu with “The Horse Lord,” and I think I know why now: this is basically a ghostly rendition of “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury. Ya know, children unwittingly bringing doom to their parents and all that. Structurally it also hits the same beats as Bradbury’s story, using the same chess board but with different pieces. I do think, in Tuttle’s defense, there’s a lot more to chew on thematically with “The Horse Lord,” even if I am deeply weary with the whole Wise Indians Who Know Better™ trope. I suppose I had an experience here similar to another horror story I’ve read recently: “Pig Blood Blues” by Clive Barker. I love me some Barker, but I would not consider “Pig Blood Blues” to be his finest hour by any means, mostly because I struggle to find a spooky farm animal scary. Spooky, sure, and “The Horse Lord” has a good amount of spookiness, but it’s not as scary as it could be.

I admire Tuttle juggling a few themes here, though, in the span of just a dozen pages. We’ve got American colonialism, the mistreatment of indigenous peoples, mistreatment of the environment, reconciling one’s attempts at artistry with one’s personal life, fear of parenthood, a few of these now being old chestnuts for modern horror but which were comparitively fresh at the time. I’m interested in reading more of Tuttle’s solo work, but I also wanna catch her at a later, more mature stage.

See you next time.


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