Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) or The Hunger Games of the Great Depression?

The whole of last week I was looking for something to read that would grab me. I’ve read a few very good but very similar novels lately and was longing for something different. When I read Guy’s review of McCoy’s novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I thought, that’s it, that’s what I want to read. Thanks to the kindle I could start right away. I’ve watched the movie when I was a teenager and although I was very impressed, I never read the book. Now that I have, I wonder why I didn’t read it any earlier. It’s great. It reminded me of another depression era book which has also been made into a movie, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is as powerful as I was expecting it to be. It’s written in the form of a testimony. A man is accused of murder. He doesn’t deny it but he wouldn’t exactly call it murder. He thinks he did the person he shot a favour. The court asks him to justify what he did and that’s why he tells his story.

Why he shot someone and why he thinks it was a favour is told in flash backs. Robert and Gloria are both luckless actors who can’t make it in Hollywood. Not even as extras, no matter how hard they try. One from Texas, the other from Arkansas, they both were hoping that Hollywood would make their dreams come true. They are very poor and hardly have enough money to buy food. When Gloria tells Robert about a dance marathon, he is first reluctant but then joins her and they sign up. These marathons were really held in those times. It’s hard to imagine nowadays but people signed up to dance for 900 and more hours straight. They were allowed to rest for fifteen minutes after one and half hours but that was all the rest they got. After a while they didn’t really dance but they had to keep moving all the time. The marathon was over when only one last couple was left.

Many  couples sign up together with Robert and Gloria, 50% already don’t make it through week one. Because the public is easily bored the organizers have to spice up things a bit and come up with additional ideas, like the derbies. Every evening the couples have to speed around the dance floor. The last couple is disqualified.

The drama during the marathon is intense. Fights break out, people collapse, the exhaustion is hard to picture, still many go on dancing after 800 hours.

There is a lot to like in this novel. The dialogue is spot on and highly effective. It captures the different colorful characters very well. What really impressed me are the two main characters Robert and Gloria. Especially Gloria. Robert and Gloria are such opposites despite the fact that they are in a very similar situation when they meet. Their mental state is so different. While Robert is hopeful, Gloria is one of the darkest characters one could imagine.

“Sometimes I’m sorry I ever met you, ” I said. “I don’t like to say a thing like that, but it’s the truth. Before I met you I didn’t know what it was to be around gloomy people.”

We crowded behind the starting lines with the other couples.

“I’m tired of living and I’m afraid of dying.” Gloria said.

Gloria is one of those people who are too far gone. I’ve met people like that in my life. You just knew, they had passed the point of no return, they were too self-destructive, no influence was going to save them. And, as one character says to Robert in the novel, it is dangerous to be in their company. They are like a maelstrom, the moment you’re in it they swallow you and drag you down.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an unflinching account of how far people are driven by poverty. And how others are willing to exploit this poverty for fun and entertainment. Only one couple can win the 1000$, the others hardly get anything. But nobody is really interested in the winners, people want to see the other couples fail. The more spectacular the failure, the better.

While it wasn’t surprising that this reminded me of another depression era book I was in no way expecting to find anything that would remind me of The Hunger Games. The writing cannot be compared, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is excellent but there are still a lot of striking similarities that made me think. I was wondering whether Suzanne Collins was consciously using it or if it was just a coincidence. After finishing the book I googled the titles together and saw that I’m not the first to spot the similarities. Amy from My Friend Amy has also written about it as you can see here and so have others.

In both books, poor people are exploited for fun. While the role of the respective government is different, the outcome is similar. In The Hunger Games the people are forced to participate, while they sign up in McCoys novel. In both instances to see others fail, watch them struggle, makes the success of the show. In both books couples or people who are liked will get sponsors who will pay for things that will help them. Food and medicine in The Hunger Games, clothes in McCoy’s books.  In both novels food plays a prominent role. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? they are fed during the breaks and eat more than usual. In The Hunger Games the dinners and lunches in the Capitol are described in great detail. Ultimately hunge, is a key theme in both books. In both books there are fake marriages/romances. Couples agree to get married or to pretend to be in love in order to make the games more interesting. And in both books the show doesn’t end as expected, in both something goes wrong. Last but not least, killing and murder is another key theme in both novels.

What is completely different is the psychological dimension. The Hunger Games isn’t very psychological but They Shoot Horses, Dont They? is. The charcaters, even the secondary ones, are captivating and feel realistic.

It would be interesting to analyze these books in more depth and to compare some of the depression era books with the wave of dystopian novels we have and what it means in terms of the perception of economic crisis.

Have you read this or other books from the Depression era? What do you know about the similarities with The Hunger Games. Is it a pure coincidence?

I wasn’t aware but I’ve downloaded an Open Road Media title. They have just released this and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as you can see here.