This week Guest Star Kate Laity writes about Dorothy B. Hughes’ Ride the Pink Horse (1946) and “folk horror noir.”
In the back of my mind for some time has been the thought knocking around that the godmother of noir, Dorothy B. Hughes, could also be a godmother of folk horror. If you have been living under a rock, you might not know the sub-genre that has come to be defined by a trilogy of films The Wicker Man (1973), Witchfinder General (1968), and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). You can read more about the concept and its explosion into popularity over social media at the Folk Horror Revival site or join its enormous companion FB group, but I will assume most readers of this site are quite familiar with the concept.
Even from a potted history, it quickly becomes clear that folk horror has mostly been glimpsed through a heteronormative male gaze (my friend Peg Aloi is putting together a collection to counter that and there’s a conference of women and folk horror about to happen). Whether it’s the ritual rape in Piers Haggard’s Claw or the punitive one in Witchfinder—or even the offered bounty of Willow’s body in The Wicker Man—women are one with the land, either to be conquered or spoiled by those who would subdue its inherent horror.
Civilization (in these films) hates and fears both the countryside of the folk and the ancient nature they thought vanquished by years of ‘progress’ pressed upon it. Stepping out into the country from urban life immediately brings an uncanny discomfort. It’s the fear that ‘civilization’ is a thin veneer of childish stories, that magic is stronger than science or logic, and that humans are mere trivialities in the greater reality. As the virus ravages the globe, many begin to wonder if that is the lesson we are learning.
Hughes’ novel Ride the Pink Horse (1946) offers an excellent exploration of this more global sense of folk horror. The protagonist is male, but the world created is hers. When the vengeful Sailor steps off a bus in the tiny New Mexican desert town, initially the story seems more noir than anything else. He’s aware, alone, separate, and conscious of the fact of his alienation. His right hand is always reaching into his pocket for the reassurance of his gun. Sailor seems to be on top of things, ready for action, and moving with purpose. Even his name hints at the kind of cynical post-war ex-servicemen who so often people noir, like Dix Steele in Hughes’ In a Lonely Place (1951), though we soon find out that Sailor was a draft-dodger. His gesture suggests a habitual criminal, but we eventually discover that he has never killed anyone.
It takes little time for this hard-bitten, sneering confidence to begin to crumble. A Chicago native, he’s thrown by the strangeness of the mix of inhabitants even as he employs racist language to refer to them, dehumanizing people to keep his distance. It doesn’t work. The land and the people welcome him, against his intention. His impulsive plan to find his former employer, the Senator, and blackmail him immediately runs into a hitch: there’s not a single place to stay in town because of the fiesta.
Sailor is completely nonplussed. But everywhere he gets the same answer: Fiesta. One clerk starts to tell him about the ‘two hundred and thirty four years’ tradition and he cuts him off. The Fiesta is irrelevant to his plans other than as an obtacle, so it’s unimportant—just a cheap carnival, he assumes. Except of course it’s not. The burning of Zozobra (though actually a 20th century invention) suffuses the land, the town, the people, and Sailor’s own fate, much as he tries to fight it. The merry-go-round operator, a man he sneeringly calls Pancho (for an imagined similarity to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa), explains,
We must burn Zozobra, Old Man Gloom, before the Fiesta commence. When Old Man Gloom he is dead, we have no more troubles. We laugh and dance and make merry. Then there is La Fiesta.
The carousel is Tio Vivo, which Hughes translates as Uncle Lively. Hughes is always so thoughtful about names. The life-giving joy of the horses is a direct contrast to the required death of Old Man Gloom. Sailor has a choice: let the past burn or ride on to death. Pancho—or rather Don José Patricio Santiago Morales y Cortez—is Spanish and Apache, and the girl Pila, a Pueblo Indian, offer him kindness in face of the unfamiliar landscape. Both know how the hierarchies injure. However, their generosity only confuses Sailor.
Like McIntyre, the cop who’s also trailing the Senator, Pancho (and Pila for that matter) has come from the same background of rough poverty that hardened Sailor. They have both broke with the cycles of violence and anger. While McIntyre attempts to reason Sailor onto the straight and narrow path, Pancho offers hospitality and a kind of open-handed friendship the young man has never known.
In the film version the fourteen year old Pila is turned into a kind of almost romantic character for Sailor (who is rechristened ‘Lucky’), but in the novel she’s more of a reminder for the hardened criminal of where he came from and his fear of going back there. She’s been ditched by her girlfriends for being too young and too prim, but it’s not the only thing that marks her as an outsider. In the complex intersections of cultures in the town—gringo, Mexican, Spanish, Indian—Pila longs for more status and power. She speaks with pride of not wearing Indian clothes and of attending the Indian School, a colonial system meant to assimilate native children into western Christian culture. When Sailor offers to buy her something special, she wants a permanent wave so she can leave the pueblo and work in town as a servant like her cousin.
But Pila is still a child and Sailor finds momentary joy in treating her to a ride on the carousel, telling her to ride the pink horse.
He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in [Marshall] Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of the music and the sweet, cold soda pop.
Sailor might have been won over to life, but ‘an old and nameless terror’ kept hold of him. It was flavoured by the cruelty of his father, the suffering of his mother, the ineffectiveness of the church, all of which the town jostles loose from his memory. But the uncanny reminiscence burst loose by Zozobra and the Fiesta is one coalesced around a granite figure he saw as a schoolboy in the Art Institute of Chicago. A glimpse of the uncanny past of the land to which he would always be an invader, not native.
I don’t know for sure what sculpture Hughes had in mind, but I want to think it was the Aztec carving, Head of Xilonen, the Goddess of Young Maize. Sailor sees an echo of it in Pila’s impassive eyes and is at once taken back to the horror of that moment. That horror is worse than all the fears he knew from the abusive life he lived, because ‘before her, his identity was lost, lost in the formless terrors older than time.’ He hears in Pila’s voice ‘the speech of this land’ and connecting her with that granite face that scarred his memory. The land itself is what he fears.
Fiesta. The time of celebration, of release from gloom, from the specter of evil. But under celebration was evil; the feast was rooted in blood, in the Spanish conquering of the Indian. It was a memory of death and destruction. Now we are one, Pancho said. A memory of peace, but before peace death and destruction. Indian, Spaniard, Gringo; the outsider, the paler face. One in Fiesta. The truce of Fiesta. Why had the Sen come to this strange foreign place? Did he think he’d be safe in a Spanish-American town? Did he think the native truce was for him too?
All of this has been unlocked by Zozobra and the uncanny inherent in this land, ‘not the USA’ as he tells McIntyre later, ‘This wouldn’t be the USA in a million years. No matter what flag they fly…We don’t belong here.’ While Sailor initially sees the people in town as strangers, he comes to realise that he is the stranger. ‘The Indians and the land were one, strong, changeless, unconquerable.’ When they burn the giant effigy, it terrifies Sailor.
In destroying evil, even puppet evil, these merry-makers were turned evil. He saw their faces: dark and light, rich and poor, great and small, old and young. Fire-shadowed, their eyes glittered with a n appetite to destroy. He saw and he was suddenly frightened.
He is unable to shake the uncanniness of seeing the ancient and eternal lying behind the surface of ‘civilization’ everywhere. He sees death, children become ants, old women become witches—the ground is uncertain under his feet. Nothing is certain in the endless land and sky, except you can’t escape from yourself and your choices. But Sailor’s instinct is only to run.
No one living could be in that dark, that silence. Maybe that was the secret in the stone; the Indians were not living; they were spirits from a long forgotten day, walking the earth, waiting. Waiting in the knowledge that they alone would not pass, the excretions of the white man would pass away and they would remain.
Sailor is the living embodiment of that lone gunman ideal that has become central to the poisonous masculinity of American exceptionalism that continues to wreak havoc up on the land. Hughes sees how this insistence on lonely individualism is both painful and deadly. It drives Dix Steel to a string of murders to recapture what he lost at his own hands, and it drives Sailor to refuse the generous welcome and truce offered him. Instead he seeks to escape, knowing all the time as Mac tells him, you can’t get away. The past may be a foreign country, but it is the one we tread every day. We need to make our peace with it.
K. A. Laity is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity Flame, Lush Situation, Love is a Grift, Satan’s Sorority, How to Be Dull, White Rabbit, Dream Book, A Cut-Throat Business, Owl Stretching, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Laity serves as History Witch for Witches & Pagans. Her work has been translated into Italian, Polish, Slovene, German and Portuguese.
Categories: Guest Star