Category Archives: Existentialist Literature

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – Horace McCoy 

  

I first read this story when I was at university studying an American Fiction of the 1930s module. It shocked me to the core. It still does today. It is a snapshot into life in America during the Great Depression when people were desperate to make it to the big screen, to Hollywood. It’s a tragic, realistic story. 

The narrator, Robert Syverten is a naive, young man from Hollywood who dreams of being a film director. The story opens with his sentencing for murder. The girl in question is called Gloria Beatty, quite possibly one of the more depressing and depressed characters I’ve ever come across. She repeats throughout how she wishes she was dead. This story of how he knows her is intercut after every chapter with short comments from the judge. The font gets larger as the story progresses. It ends with “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Robert meets Gloria when they both have failed to become extras for Central. (The only way to be on the big screen.) She persuades him into taking part in a marathon dance contest. She is adamant that this is the way to be noticed by studio producers and movie stars. 

Robert meets Gloria on a morning when they have both failed to get parts as extras, with each feeling bitter. ‘Let’s go and sit and hate a bunch of people.’ Like Robert, she is struggling to find work in Hollywood. Gloria and Robert enter the dance contest, which is held at a large amusement pier on the beach, somewhere near Hollywood. Naively they enter thinking they could win and really make it. 

Gloria has every reason to be repetitive in her wishes to die. Her parents are dead, she ran away from a farm in Dallas where her uncle regularly made passes at her, she tried to commit suicide, failed, then ran away to Hollywood. She’s not a beautiful character, being described as plain looking and unlikely to ever find work as an actress. She tells Robert that she does not have the courage to kill herself. “It’s perculiar to me that everyone pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” 

The promotors are desperate to increase attendance at the contest, as this will help make them money. They publicise the arrest of a contestant for murder, stage elimination races every evening and a even a marriage. However the couple due to be married should have been eliminated, but it’s fixed so they don’t. 

Two and three weeks pass and the crowds increase as newspapers cover the contest. Some couples receive sponsorships from local businesses, giving them new clothes and shoes. We are introduced to a lady called Mrs Layden. She attends every evening to watch her favourite couple, Robert and Gloria. She also gets them a sponsorship from a local business. However, she doesn’t have a good impression of Gloria, saying “She’s an evil person and she’ll wreck your life.”

The number of couples that break down physically and drop out increase. The crowd cheers and takes a sharp intake of breath whenever someone falls or trips in the race. Robert is consumed with claustrophobia and repeats his desire to be outside and to see the sun. Gloria too is starting to show signs of struggling. There are a couple of occasions where they narrowly miss out on being disqualified. Robert starts to tire of how bitter Gloria is, saying “Sometimes I’m sorry I ever met you. I don’t like to say a thing like that, but it’s the true. Before I met you I didn’t know what it was to be around gloomy people.”

After 879 hours of dancing, with 20 couples left, the contest is shut down when there is a murder in the dance hall’s bar. Unfortunately, a stray bullet from the shooting hits and kills Mrs Layden. The promotors decide to end the competition and give each dancer left $50 for their efforts. It is believed they would have been closed down anyway, after opposition arriving before. 

Robert and Gloria go outside for the first time in five weeks and sit looking out at the ocean. Gloria takes out a pistol and asks Robert to shoot her. He does. There doesn’t seem to be much a fight or moral dilemma regarding this choice. He reverts back to a memory of when his grandfather shot his beloved horse after she broke her leg. The police push Robert to answer why he shot Gloria. The fact that she asked him to caused them to mock him. “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

American readers of the 1930s were not impressed with this book one bit. Sales were low. It was, however, read in the existentialist circles of France. McCoy’s story here was one of many to be published during this time showing the Great Depression and its effect on people at that time. 

It’s a grim and gory tale, yet it’s one that is physically impossible to put down. It  is short yet packed with drama, tragedy and desperation. A must read for anyone interested in American and/or Existentilist literature. 

BL x

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Filed under American Literature, Book review, Existentialist Literature