Friday, August 11, 2017

Summer Series: Son of the Black Stallion


Son of the Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

At the end of The Black Stallion Returns, Alec left the Black behind in "Arabia" but was promised the first foal by the black out of the Arabian mare Johar. Spoiler alert: this book is about that foal. Here's the basic summary.
Alec is gifted the first foal by the Black, a colt he names Satan, but there's something wrong. Satan has a mean streak a mile wide, and Henry doubts it will ever be cured. After many, many, many violent interludes, Alec eventually bonds with Satan, and they train him for the track. He overcomes training problems and villainous machinations to win the two year old Hopeful Stakes and start a great racing career.
Much like the key to The Black Stallion was understanding that Alec has PTSD, the key to understanding this book is that Walter Farley wanted to try his hand at writing a horror novel but have it all turn out okay after all. There's just no other way to explain how Satan is written.

Let's start at the beginning, our third visit to the port of Addis, where a mysterious group of Arabs load a young colt onto a steamer ship. Two sailors watch, and decide a) the horses are really super nice and b) the colt is 5 months old and already a complete shit who bites one of his handlers.

The two sailors also helpfully spend several pages recapping the first book, including telling the reader that the Drake went down with all hands on deck, which makes yet another retcon. I don't have a good explanation for why I care about this so much except it's just so damn lazy. Read your own books, Walter Farley! They're not all that long, it's taking me about two hours for each one!

Cut to Flushing, where Alec helpfully catches us up on the events of The Black Stallion Returns via internal monologue and also lets us know that Henry is off working for Peter Boldt, "who has one of the finest racing stables in the country," except his wife is still Alec's neighbor and didn't Henry retire and what in God's name did he do in "Arabia" that merited offering him a job? Wouldn't Volence be the one that would actually be impressed by Henry? I give up.

Anyway, this is just a way of getting to the real moral of this book, which is that no one in this entire narrative deserves Alec's mother, Belle. (We only learn her name in an aside toward the end of the book, fuck you, Walter Farley.)
She was afraid. Afraid of what this new horse would bring. Twice before a horse, his horse, had led Alec to undertakings few men had ever experienced. Undertakings which for him had been adventurous, exciting. But for her and her husband, they had meant months of anguish and concern.
I grant you, this is exceptionally poorly written, but augh, Belle. She basically spends this entire book quietly in agony and if anyone acknowledges her at all its either as a joke or as an obstacle to get around.

Speaking of obstacles to get around, Mrs. Dailey, Henry's wife, who never does get a name!
"Mrs. Dailey?" Alec smiled. "Dad! Don't tell me you've forgotten...Henry's wife...lives in the big house on the corner, and owns the barn and field."
"Oh, yes! I guess I'm getting old, Alec," Mr. Ramsay said, laughing. "Come to think of it, your mother has been charging me with forgetfulness of late." A slight pause, and he added, "I shouldn't have thought Mrs. Dailey would make you pay anything, though, what with Henry having that good job on the coast, and her taking in boarders.
Later events will bear this out, but Mr. Ramsay? IS THE ACTUAL WORST. Holy shit. They're rolling in it, he's got a job and everything, why won't they feed your horse for free?!

The colt arrives, and things are...not good. First, he almost kills Alec's dog, and then Alec gives him daddy issues on, like day one.
Still looking at the blazing eyes, he said softly, "You're fire, boy. You're full of it, just like him. You're mine, boy. We're going places together...you and I. We're going to use that fire to burn the tracks. We're going to make him proud of you. He'll hear about you, boy. Hear the pounding of your hoofs, even though he's way back in the desert. It's going to be the way he wants it, boy."
For my money, this right here? This is the moment that the colt decides the only solution to his current predicament is to murder everyone, and I do not blame him one bit.

Just for the WTF-ery, I will also give you this bit.
"He's it, Henry!" Alec almost shouted. He's everything we hoped for. I know he is. I can feel it right here in his muzzle even?" 
JESUS CHRIST ALEC WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?

Alec announces he's decided to name the colt Satan, which...do I even need to explain the ways in which that is a terrible idea? Is anyone even mildly surprised that the next ~75 pages of the book are a descent into a storyline right out of The Omen?

What, you think I'm exaggerating? Literally the next whole segment of the book is a see-saw between Alec expressing the same sentiments as above (he's perfect! he'll come around! I lurrrrve him! the Black will be so proud!) and Henry saying and thinking things like, well:
And it was his eyes that Henry looked at more and more often as they walked along. They were smaller than his sire's, and the glare from them was fixed and stony. They bothered Henry. For throughout his life the old trainer had prided himself on being able to tell much about a horse from his eyes. And he didn't like what he saw in the black colt's. Too much lurked there...craftiness, cunning, viciousness, yes...and something else, too. Something which Henry couldn't figure out. Something which he could only feel...and it was sinister. He'd never seen it in the eyes of any horse before, even the Black.
Satan is indeed a little shit, but can you blame him? He's being trained by an 18 year old kid who has no idea what he's doing, he gets barely any turnout, he has no interaction with other horses of any kind (he went after Napoleon and so they keep him far away) and basically his only entertainment and enrichment is trying to murder the people around him. Which he does. Over, and over, and over, and over, and...well, you get the idea.
The colt rose above them all in all his savageness, his blood on fire and the urge to kill great within him. No longer did his eyes smolder with contempt. Now they were alive and gleaming red with hate. And Satan's black body trembled with eagerness as his savage instinct drove him toward the kill.
There's something deeply ironic about the way Satan is handled, because you know what he needs? He needs a mare to kick the shit out of him and teach him some manners, and he needs friends. That's basically what Alec needs in his life, too. His mother is abused by the narrative and not allowed to express human feelings without being mocked by the men around her, and Alec spends the whole book isolating himself even further than he already was. He rebuffs the last of his friends who want to spend time with him and then transfers to community college so he can have even less claims on his time.

Anyway. Henry manages to get Satan sort of leading, and there's a whole bit where Alec sees a length of chain and is worried Henry is beating the colt, but of course Henry isn't, so with that resolved, Alec looks at a 17hh yearling (not making that up, it's explicitly stated) that can't even be lead and won't stand still for grooming and still tries to bite, kick, or run down everyone around him and well, you know what Alec does, right?

He convinces Henry to put a bridle and saddle on Satan and then gets up on him all within about...an hour? Henry even flat out says this is too fast, but maybe it's also a good idea, because Satan is so awful this won't give him time to plot. Jesus, none of these people should be allowed around horses.

Predictably enough, Satan rears and then I think we're meant to understand that he deliberately flips on Alec and tries to squash him on the way down. Henry later remembers it this way:
Never would Henry forget the hideous sight of Satan, in all his fury, intentionally falling over backwards, hoping to pin the boy beneath his giant body. Never had he seen it happen before, with any horse, and he hoped never to see it again. If Alec hadn't kept his wits, if he hadn't been the horseman he was, he wouldn't have thrown himself clear of Satan's back as he'd done, and just in time.
Can we be clear about something here? Alec had never touched a horse until the summer he spent with his uncle in India. He pretty explicitly says that in The Black Stallion. Then he rides the Black for maybe a couple of months. THAT'S IT. That is the sum total of Alec's entire experience with horses. Satan is maybe the fourth or fifth horse he's ever ridden. EVER.
Mr. Ramsay said quietly, "I know better, Henry. Alec is too good a horseman to fall off, with or without stirrups. You had trouble with the colt." 
Because, see, Henry brought an unconscious Alec to his parents' house saying only that he'd fallen and hit his head. Also, fuck you, Mr. Ramsay. Alec is not any kind of horseman and far far far more talented riders than he have fallen off. Like me, for example. And probably you. Yes, you! If you're reading this, you're probably a better rider than Alec Ramsay!

Alec's accident prompts Henry to go out and have a come to Jesus session with Satan, and let's bullet point out what Henry does here because it is so mind-blowingly awful and misguided and just plain dumb that if you're surprised at how it ends I don't even know what to say to you.

  • Step 1: grab a crop and a length of rope 
  • Step 2: go out into Satan's field and yell at him, which causes him to charge straight at Henry
  • Step 3: smack Satan really hard on the face with the crop when he runs by
  • Step 4: lasso Satan, throw him to the ground, and tie a blindfold over his eyes
  • Step 5: chase him around the field, still lassoed, now with a blindfold, get knocked down many times
  • Step 6: make one final effort to wheel him around with the ropes but actually drive him to jump the fence into some undergrowth, lose consciousness
  • Step 7: profit?????
Alec hears Satan screaming from his sickbed, and comes out to see Henry out cold in the field and Satan gone. Henry tells him that he's killed Satan, because the colt jumped the fence with ropes still attached to him, and he's definitely strangled himself.

Of course he hasn't strangled himself, or this book would be even shorter. Alec finds Satan immobilized and lying in undergrowth and slowly being strangled by the ropes. He wades right in and loosens the ropes and...that's it. The act of saving Satan magically transforms him from the hellspawn described for the last umpteen pages into a spirited but manageable horse.

No, really. It's that fast and that complete. Like flipping a switch. Satan is not overly fond of Henry, but the rest of the summer is a training montage of Alec riding Satan around the field, and then heading to the track for workouts. In maybe four or five rides, Satan has the knack of not murdering other horses he's galloping with (poor Napoleon, who spends his nights galloping around a track and his days pulling Tony's vegetable cart). 

The next problem to overcome is that Satan is afraid of whips, but it's fine, they hang crops in his stall and rub them over his muzzle and put blinkers on him and magic! He's off to the races, literally - he wins his first race, the Sanford, even though he veers all over the place to get away from the other jockeys' crops so he really runs, like twice as far. He's just that good, you guys.

Now we have a complication. Peter Boldt, Henry's old boss, is trying really hard to be the villain of this book, even though it's really Satan. I've been neglecting his part of the book in favor of the horse bits, but here it is in a nutshell: he's a bad guy who wants to buy Satan. Earlier in the book, Alec sold Satan to his father for $1 to get around Jockey Club rules so that he could also ride him in races. Boldt offered Alec's father a lot of money ($35,000 in 1947 dollars, which is about $400k in today's money, adjusted for inflation. Mr. Ramsay refused, saying the horse belonged to Alec.

Now Boldt is back, trying to prevent Satan from running in the Hopeful Stakes so that his horse, Boldt's Comet, will win. So he files a complaint saying that Mr. Ramsay lied on his paperwork and that Alec is the real owner so Satan can't race. You know what? HE'S NOT WRONG. But on paper, Mr. Ramsay is the owner and he just has to show everyone the bill of sale that Alec wrote to prove it.

Let me backtrack for just a moment and say that the bill of sale scene was the most emotionally touching scene in the whole book, because these stories are best when they really show how deeply emotionally involved Alec is with these horses. Not in the creepy obsessive way (a line that Farley crosses with gusto) but in the boy-and-his-horse way.

Problem: Alec's dad has lost the bill of sale. He was showing it off to some people at work (THE WORST) and now he can't find it. He and Alec and Henry and poor Tony search the entire house over and over again and...enter Belle Ramsay again. First, yet another example of how she spends this book getting shat on.
Turning to Alec, [his father] added, "Don't mention my buying these riding silks to your mother, Alec." Pausing, he said confidingly, "She wouldn't understand." 
Nodding, Alec smiled. "Yes, Dad, I know...she wouldn't understand. 
It literally never occurs to anyone in this book to talk to women like they are people. But she gets her revenge.
Only half-heartedly had she helped search for the paper. She hadn't wanted to find it. She didn't want to spend next Saturday afternoon waiting at home, thinking of her son riding Satan in that big race. It would be dangerous, and she was afraid for him. 
Only person talking sense in this whole book? Yes, I think so. Notice, too, how she assumes no one will want her there to watch the race? Women's lib cannot come fast enough for Belle Ramsay.

You know what she does next? She logics that shit right out. She does exactly what women do. She thinks about where the paper was last, what her husband was doing, and within an hour she has accomplished what four men working twelve hours could not do. It's awesome, but it's also a really weird moment, narratively, because the whole book has been trashing her and her womanly emotions and now she saves the day in a practical, smart, and efficient way. Kind of whiplash-y, honestly.

Anyway, the day is saved, the big race is here, and...if I ended this recap right here you'd know what happens. There is a legitimately great scene with all of the other jockeys, and a really cool older jockey who takes Alec under his wing, and the predictable shenanigans of one jockey being a jerk during the race. Satan wins, though, fending off Tom Volence's Desert Storm (sired by one of the horses Volence brought back in the last book) in a stretch duel. In the winning circle, Belle Ramsey gets one last moment to being a secret hero, after her husband told her she should not have come to the race.
Mrs. Ramsay moved forward and placed her hand upon Satan's neck. "He's hot, Alec," she said with great concern. "We should get him away from this crowd."
HOORAY FOR BELLE RAMSAY.

Hey, guess who traveled to America to see the race? Abu Ja'Kub ben Ishak, that's who, and at the very end of the book he drops the bombshell news that he's thinking of bringing the Black back to America to race, which lets Alec twist the screws on Satan's daddy issues one last time.
Abu had said the Black would be in the States next spring! And next spring Satan would be a three-year-old, eligible to race for the biggest stakes! It could happen that Satan would race the Black!
Satan pushed his head against him, and Alec rubbed the colt between the eyes. "Your pop is coming," he whispered. "And he'll be proud of you, boy. I know he will." 
Next up: we take a sideways journey to Azul Island, home of archaeologists and Spanish horses and, eventually, aliens, for The Island Stallion.

3 comments:

  1. LOLOLOL it sounds like the Thoroughbred books only with satanic horses from Arabia.

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  2. God these reviews are amazing. I can't stop laughing. I'm gonna need you to review more stuff...

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  3. I want you yo review basically all children's horse books when you're done with these, lol. I can't wait for your Island Stallion review, I loved that one as a kid!

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