Horses Of The Night by Margaret Laurence, 1967
The magic trick:
Creating a Spike Lee “double dolly” effect
Back in July, we did five stories from Margaret Laurence’s A Bird In The House collection, and they were so good, I’m back for more. Those stories each pack a wallop. They are emotionally heavy, often waiting until the final page to deliver the gut punch moment that ties everything together. But I wouldn’t call them sad. Their tones vary throughout, often even including moments of humor.
Today’s Laurence feature, though? It’s sad. The levity never rises. Narrator Vanessa’s relentless quest to be taken seriously as an adult (even though she’s 10 years old) isn’t showcased here for charm; it’s used to create a portrait of her older cousin.
The effect isn’t one I’m familiar with. I’d liken it to Spike Lee’s famous “double dolly” shot, where he creates the illusion of a character floating through a scene by putting both the actor and the camera on separate dollies that move toward each other.
Here in “Horses Of The Night,” the character of Chris is the actor frozen in the scene pulled toward his fate. Vanessa is the camera. She idolizes him as an 8-year-old, half his age. As the story progresses, she reflects on a summer spent with him when she was 15, and finally a conclusion from her point of view as a college student. It’s her maturity that provides the reader with new views of his character. But as you look back on the story, his character was at its core the same all along – forever doomed to be out of time, out of place. So even as it’s his story, it’s Vanessa’s coming of age that allows for the story to be told.
And that’s quite a trick on Laurence’s part.
“Ewen told me about the last war, once. He hardly ever talked about it, but this once he told me about seeing the horses in the mud, actually going under, you know? And the way their eyes looked when they realised they weren’t going to get out. Ever seen horses’ eyes when they’re afraid, I mean really berserk with fear, like in a bush-fire? Ewen said a guy tended to concentrate on the horses because he didn’t dare think what was happening to the men. Including himself. Do you ever listen to the news at all, Vanessa?”
“I – ”
I could only feel how foolish I must sound, still unable to reply as I would have wanted, comprehendingly. I felt I had failed myself utterly. I could not speak even the things I knew. As for the other things, the things I did not know, I resented Chris’s facing me with them. I took refuge in pretending to be asleep, and after a while Chris stopped talking.
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