Lisa Tuttle’s short horror story The Horse Lord appears, like everything I’ve done a Short Review of so far, in the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It maybe bears mentioning that the “Short” in “Short Review” refers to the length of the subject matter rather than the review itself. I retcon this claim to be true.
I love Lovecraft’s weird fiction. Not just his mythos stuff, but his ‘weird New England’ stuff, where the oldness of the land and the mystery about what took place where nothing but oral traditions passed down the stories of spirits that inhabit the land. A lot of writers try to emulate Lovecraft by simply throwing together a monster with an unpronounceable name, toss in the boilerplate about “unknowable horror” and “unspeakable cosmic” whatnot, but those folks are missing the real magic. Lisa Tuttle does not. She understands how to weave a story of suspense and terror.
First, you establish a sense of dread with tone and setting. Then, you provide the underlying justification for that feeling of dread by providing just enough background to confirm in the reader’s mind that something terrible is going to happen and hint at the possible nature of that something. You let the dread build, raising the blade of the guillotine, until the very end when you let the rope go. This is what Lisa Tuttle does in the Horse Lord with enough skill and nuance that one can’t say that she’s emulating Lovecraft’s weird horror but rather she is improving upon it.
The Horse Lord takes place in a grim and desolate patch of land in upstate New York where a family has just moved. The protagonist is a fairly recently married woman, Marilyn, who wanted children someday but now suddenly has several: a step-daughter and four recently orphaned nieces & nephews. Unable to afford space for such a brood in New York City, the family moved to an old home that had been in her husband Derek’s family for years relatively unused. After quickly painting Marilyn’s situation, her character and the rural isolation of the bleak homestead and nearby barn (locked and boarded up, naturally), Tuttle gives us our underlying justification: a gruesome and inexplicable unnatural death nearly a century ago. We learn from Derek that his “Old Uncle Martin” had been torn apart and eaten by his own horses in that barn. The land was cursed and local Indian warnings had gone ignored.
The story goes on to juxtapose Marilyn reading and finding out more and more about the supposed “curse”, the local Indians, the grisly death of Uncle Martin (a kind man, who’d been good to his horses), and nightmares about bones being snapped by the giant teeth of angry equines with the children’s eerie determination to fix up the old barn and catch the horse that must certainly be running wild on the property (what else could be making that terrifying screaming sound in the hills at night?). Never has the old adage of “every little girl wants a pony” been so frightening. We know (because it is a horror story) that Marilyn and Derek are doomed, and we slowly learn why and can eventually make some decent guesses as to how, but nothing quite prepares you (except for a spoileriffic review like this!) for that moment when they are eaten alive by their own children.
Lovecraft’s typical protagonist is a boring asexual scholarly type who winds up in some horrible predicament that ends with him going crazy or being torn to pieces. The horror lies primarily in the situation itself with little empathetic fear, as we don’t necessarily relate or connect to the typical Lovecraftian protagonist (though friendless, family-less archivists and librarians might, I don’t know). Tuttle’s hero here is in a Lovecraftian situation, but we can relate to her and her real life fears about safety of her family, fear for her children, fear of failing as a parent in addition to the unknowable horrors. And then to be killed by that which you loved, feared for and wanted so desperately to protect? It is the unheimlich all over the place!