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.

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

  1. Thanks for the mention Caroline, and I’m really glad you enjoyed the novel so much. I liked what you said about “the more spectacular failure the better,” all too true.

    I can’t compare this to The Hunger Games as I haven’t read it.

    I just finished Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye from the same author. It’s not as good, but it is extremely dark. Set in the 30s too. (and there’s a film made of it)

    • I wanted to ask you precisely that, whether he has written other good books.
      The book is excellent, it has the type of dialogue I really like. I also thought the characters were very well done. Even Gloria, such a dark one.

      • Apart from Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (which is crime), I have a few others here. Some on the kindle. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye lacks the focus of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

  2. For Depression Era novels, Steinbeck–although I’m not a huge fan. My fav. Steinbeck is East of Eden, but I suppose for Depression Era, you’d have to read The Grapes of Wrath.

    • Guy – For what it’s worth, I just finished In Dubious Battle (literally, an accidental find – it was in a box on the sidewalk outside my apartment) and thought it was really terrific, without any of the “prettying” of the narrative one sees in The Grapes of Wrath (which draws heavily from In Dubious Battle) or East of Eden. It’s intense and brutal and even timely, given the current anti-union sentiment and amnesia about the exceptionally violent history of labor struggles in the U.S. – and puts most American social/political literature to shame.

    • Thank you, renfield. I think it’s an amazing book and it might even be worth exploring other titles by the author. I hope you will like it as well.

  3. Interesting comparison. interesting observation about dystopias. There is almost always an element of class division, with the plutocrats having the means to survive, and the vast majority of poor having to scrape by, but I never really considered how much our current economic situation contributed to that consistent theme.

    • I had a longer passage on that but realized I need to give it some more thought. I had said recently that our times were not much better and was corrected. It’s true, it isn’t as bad as the depression but what strikes me as an interesting difference – we knew it happened once and nobody can guarantee it couldn’t happen again. The fear is present. I see these novels as a reaction to what has happend recently and a way come to terms with fears of something worse. It would be interesting to compare Gloria and Katniss (and other depression charcater vs dystopian charcaters) because their way of coping seesm so typical… I hope someone with more time sees this and finds it an interesting topic to explore.

  4. I’ve read the Cain novel twice and listened to it on audio as well. I love reading about this era but haven’t done so in a while. I had this checked out from the library but didn’t get to it–I still want to read it and now as much as ever. You might like Dawn Powell’s books, too. She wrote during this period and I think she’s an excellent author who should really be better known.

    • Thanks so much, I’m going to look for Dawn Powell right away. I haven’t read anything from that period since the two or three Cain novels I read.
      I think you will like “They Shoot Horses…” it’s dark but it captures so much. It’s going to stay in my mind.
      I really want to read the “Grapes of Wrath” this year as well. I think I also got a non-fiction book about the era somewhere.

    • It’s quite short still feels more like a novel than a novella. The movie is very good but I need to rewatch it to be able to say whether the book is better.

  5. I have never read this one and it is on my 1001 list so I will be at some point. I love this time period. One of my favorite novels is The Grapes of Wrath. I’ll be honest, I avoided this particular novel since I thought the subject matter would disturb me. But after reading your review, it sounds like something that I would really enjoy. Still disturbing though. And I haven’t read the Hunger Games, but I am curious about how you connected them.

    • TBM, you will enjoy this, I’m pretty sure. I’m not surprised it is on your list. I loved it for the content as much as for the writing, especially the dialogue and the characters.

  6. I had a little thing for Depression era literature last December and read a few books – James M Cain’s was the one that sticks in my mind. I have a review copy of the Horace McCroy that was sent me about 18 months ago, but I know it’s going to be incredibly dark and bleak and I really have to pick my moments for that kind of story. I’m glad you appreciated it, though – it’s encouraging!

    • I remember your posts. They were very interesting. It is a dark book but not depressing or ta least I didn’t think so. there are too many absurd moments that are quite funny. It’s well balanced, it leaves you the option to not get too close or swallowed up. It has that kindness.

  7. Nice post, Caroline. That’s one of those titles I’ve heard about since I was a kid, but I’ve never read the novel or seen the movie, so this is a good prompt to make amends. If you’re looking for more reading on the period, one affecting little Depression era novel that I rarely see around anymore is Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing – well worth the 45 minutes it’ll probably take you to read it.

    • Thanks Scott, I’ll try to find Kromer. If Guy hadn’t reviewed it I might not have tried it but I’m so glad I did. It made me realize that a lot of nowadays writing is really weak in comparison but one starts get so used to it and doesn’t even realize anymore.

  8. Thanks for the great review Caroline. This sounds like a great book.

    Though not a novel about the great depression, I found that Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” really captured the devastating toll and poignancy of personal economic collapse.

    Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was one of the ultimate “hard times” books. It was however wildly melodramatic and therefore difficult for me to take too seriously.

    • Thanks, Brian. i think you would like this.
      Dreiser is another of those American Classics I’d like to read this year and have already bought Sister Carrie. Thanks for the nudge.
      Somebody in my family (I suppose my grandmother) must have been a huge Upton Sinclair fan as I have at least 12 of his novels in a box. Unfortunately in German translation. Maybe that’s why he isn’t so widely read anymore, because he is a bit melodramatic?

  9. Thanks for the great review, Caroline, and thanks for bringing both of these novels to our attention. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the newest publications and prize winners that I let books like these slip off my TBR list.

    • Thanks Gavin. You are welcome. I think you would certainly like Horace McCoy and maybe also The Hunger Games. Yes, it’s hard to keep up, I know.

  10. Nice review, Caroline! This looks like a really interesting book. It is interesting that ‘The Hunger Games’ has a lot of similarities to it. When I saw the title, I thought that it was a western 🙂 I found your comparison of depression-era novels and the dystopian novels coming out today quite fascinating.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I think you would like this book as well. It is so well written. I really think it’s not just a coincidence but some deeper meaning behind the dystopian novel wave.

  11. Hello
    I read your review of The Hunger Games and Guy’s review of this one almost at the same time ,I think.
    I haven’t read the books but the similarity struck me for the panem & circenses aspect. And the current fascination for trash TV involving all kinds of challenges.

    • For some reason until I started reading it, I didn’t make any connection. I think Suzanne Collins writes she was inspired by TV programs. She doesn’t mention Battle Royale nor this. I think I saw a post somewhere in which someone stated that there was only a number of plots out there and that’s why “the rich exploit he poor” will always end in similar type of novels. Not sure I can agree though.

  12. why they soot the horse? I don’t get the connection between the title and the story, do enlighten me please 🙂

    what interested me the most from reading this is Gloria kind of people. I never met such person before and you said it is easy to spot on. Maybe I am to happy go round person that I never notice such gloomy around me. I wonder what makes them so down like that.

  13. Hi,I’m about to begin designing the costumes for ‘They Shoot Horses. Don’t They@.I’m still trying to decide on the angle to take so I’m wondering if you have any suggestions of how you would portray the characters.Thanks

    • I don’t know whether something like shabby chic exists in clothing. Maybe that’s just what people call”vintage” these days. I’m not sure but that’s how I pictured the clothes. You know, poor people dressed up. You know they are wearing their best cothes but they have seen better days.
      Would it bet set at the time?

  14. Pingback: Reality show, pre-TV era | Book Around The Corner

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