Alec and the Black discover a mysterious white mare in the Florida Everglades
Okay, so remember how we all thought that aliens going to Azul Island was weird?
That book was a model of internal logic and sensible plotting compared to this one.
Also, remember how I complained that The Black Stallion Challenged didn’t have much plot? It’s like Walter Farley heard that and said “Hold my beer.”
Here is what happens in this book: Alec and the Black get lost in the Everglades overnight and encounter a weird dude and his mare. That’s it. THAT’S IT. REALLY.
But oh, holy crap, the insanity that happens in those swamps…!
We start the book at a circus performance in Stockholm, where a gray mare performs a liberty act, taking her cues from some very weird music. She runs through the haute ecole movements (like the Spanish Riding School), piaffes and passages, and generally puts on what sounds like a really impressive freestyle without a rider or anyone on the ground directing her.
Hanging out in the wings is her owner/trainer, who is introduced as Captain Philippe de Pluminel. He trained at the Cadre Noir in France and he’s black – of Haitian ancestry – and 99.9% of what Walter Farley writes about him is vaguely-to-explicitly racist. It’s…not great.
He believed strongly in the powers of the small figurine, for his Haitian blood and heritage had made him more superstitious than most men.
Pluminel is grumpy that people don’t appreciate his mare the way he thinks they should, and then his mind sort of wanders down lots of paths including thinking that she dances so well because “it was the woman in her,” uggggggghhhhh.
He wanted her to have a foal and he had found the stallion that was right for her in every way. He had seen him on Swedish television only that week, a horse called the Black, the American champion, winning a great race in Florida. That he should find such a stallion now, after so many years of searching, was still another sign that pointed the way for him.
No one’s breeding decisions in these books make ANY SENSE. You have a very nice dressage mare and after years of searching you’re going to breed her to a racehorse of unknown pedigree that you saw on TV once? A RACEHORSE? WHY.
Speaking of the Black, he is on a vacation at a ranch in Florida and someone turned him out in a field next to a field of mares and we devote an uncomfortably long time to his case of blue balls.
Within his great body was a fierce, insistent, almost intolerable longing for a mate.
We get a couple of pages of Alec sort of wishing he didn’t have so many responsibilities, that it could just be him and his horse, and you know what, Alec? WHAT RESPONSIBILITIES? Again, I hate to keep bringing this up, but he has ONE horse. One. That he races only occasionally. Then they take long vacations together. THAT SOUNDS PRETTY GREAT, ALEC. He hasn’t even been back to Hopeful Farm in like a year!
Alec jumps up on the Black bareback to do a bit of a training ride, and ends up following a path into the Everglades because he feels called to. He just jaunts down this trail that he’s never been on before, with no idea where it leads, and he keeps thinking “hm, maybe I should turn back, the swamp is dangerous, nah, I really feel like something is calling me to keep going.”
They seriously pass an alligator corpse being picked clean by carrion birds and at no point does it occur to Alec that something out there killed an alligator and maybe it’s not safe???
The winding dark water was like a slithering snake, but it was shallow enough to ford without swimming. There was no sign of any alligators and it would only take a few seconds to cross.
Oh good as long as there’s no sign of alligators ALEC THEY LIVE UNDERWATER YOU IDIOT.
Anyway, they ride for-fucking-ever along this path, seriously like two chapters of “this is a creepy swamp, oh well, I’ll just keep going” with occasional asides into 1969-era debates about draining the Everglades so they can build housing developments and whether they’ll ever think about the environment. (Spoiler alert: no, they will not, Florida is objectively the worst state, GO AHEAD, COME AT ME.)
They come across Pluminel riding his mare, The Ghost, in a random clearing at the end of this path and they’ve been cantering this whole time, for hours and hours, so they could be easily 20 miles away.
Alec clamped a hand across his horse’s nostrils, stilling the neigh that was about come. “No,” he said softly.
So Pluminel is putting on some kind of freestyle exhibition in the middle of the swamp and I have so many questions. Is this just his daily schooling? Did he time this somehow so that they were showing off right as Alec and the Black arrived? WHY?
The man was part of his horse as she moved at full speed while fixed to one spot.
From context clues, that’s supposed to be a canter pirouette.
And now we’re introduced to a central theme of the rest of the book: Alec cold-cocking the Black.
Alec remained where he was, mindful again of Henry’s final instructions. “Above anything else, keep him away from mares.”
The whole horse-sex subplot of this book is squicky, creepy, and weirdly handled. Walter Farley clearly knows jack shit about horse breeding (both the planning and the physicality, and I’m sorry to say more on that later) but has this weird toxic masculinity over-identification with stallions in general and the Black in particular. Bits of that have come through in other books but in this one it’s full on “I AM MALE AND I MUST FUCK.” That’s it. That’s all we get from the Black in this book.
Pluminel is weird from the get-go.
[His] eyes were inquisitive, as well they should be at finding someone watching his performance. But there was also a coldness in them that foreboded danger. There was no getting away now. [Alec] had to face up to this meeting.
For the next, I dunno, three chapters the following things happen over and over and over and over again:
- Alec thinks about how he really shouldn’t be here and this dude is kind of creepy and he’s in the middle of nowhere and all signs point to his impending murder.
- Pluminel shows him some pictures of horses or says something marginally interesting about training horses and Alec decides he’s the smartest and coolest.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
The captain was a professional horseman like himself and, according to the blurb on the jacket of the book, was the world’s foremost authority on dressage. Never in his life had Alec failed to get along with someone who loved horses.
Oh, Alec, you haven’t met enough horse people.
(In all seriousness though Alec meets people who love horses but who he does not get along with IN EVERY SINGLE BOOK. Including people who try to murder him!)
I’m going to skip a whole lot of “but maybe I should go home? oooooh, he’s got cool pictures of horses!” because ugh it goes on FOREVER.
They have a gourmet meal together:
There were many kinds of canned meat as well as fresh fruit, and Alec suddenly realized how hungry he was.
I unapologetically love Spam, I would totally be down for a Spam buffet with some fresh fruit on the side, but so much for portraying this guy as some kind of urbane wit with great taste.
Pluminel tells Alec a long story full of foreshadowing and mild hysterics that boils down to this: he is descended from a Native American (“Carib Indian” ugh) who guided the conquistadors through the Everglades in trade for a horse, and a local deity named Kovi has placed a curse on his entire family. Every time they interact with a horse, bad shit happens to them. This is relayed in a “of course this is absolutely true” kind of way and Pluminel sort of kind of has a nervous breakdown while telling Alec the story but despite constantly thinking he should run for the hills, Alec does not do so.
A storm comes, except with just lightning, no rain.
“I’m afraid of lightning because I’ve seen too many animals killed in pasture by it, and my horse and I have had some terrible experiences in storms.”
Alec implying that he has seen multiple horses struck by lightning in the pasture is BONKERS.
Well, during the storm he runs out to the Black (who is hanging out in a random shed) and it’s not entirely clear what happens but basically the shed is destroyed and Alec has to move the Black into the main barn with the Ghost.
Alec then goes to bed. Like you do, when you’re in a strange crazy man’s house. He has either a dream or a psychic experience in which he feels like something is holding him down in to the bed and smothering him. He wakes up and there’s nothing but he gets up and goes out into the night to find, predictably enough, that Pluminel is trying to breed the Black to the Ghost.
Alec stopped at the barn. The horses were behind it and not far away. At first he was aware only of the beauty of the blending of their bodies, coal-black and silver-gray.
Farley devotes waaaaaaay too much time to describing how the Black keeps trying to mount the Ghost, and how Pluminel doesn’t think the Black is treating her right because he’s trying to bite her withers which is…pretty normal?
Repeatedly [Pluminel] pulled down the shank with all his strength. The Black went back on his haunches in an attempt to escape the pain of the chain cutting viciously into his gums. “Assez! Ca suffit! Enough!” the captain screamed at the stallion while backing him with terrible force. “You are a devil! You do not treat her this way! You go forward when I say you do, not before!”
And Alec…doesn’t really do anything? He just watches? It makes NO SENSE.
He stood in the doorway where he could see the stallion whirling his mare around, dominating her, bringing her to her knees, until, finally, she stood quietly before him.
So much squick in this scene, be glad I am only excerpting it for you.
Finally Alec steps in and Pluminel turns on him and hits him. Alec stays conscious long enough to see the Black run away. He wakes up some indefinite period of time later and Pluminel tells him the Black is gone, so of course Alec sets out into the swamp in the pitch black. It’s actually not as crazy as you might think compared to staying with the lunatic who just tried to kill him.
Alec wanders the swamp for a while (possibly hours?) until he comes across Pluminel, who has come out to help him. Pluminel tells him that they should go to a particular island in the swamp that’s an Indian burial ground because that’s where all the dry stream beds lead so that’s where the Black will go like that makes sense???
They sort of hang out on this island and then shit starts to get really weird.
Basically they both have psychic breaks. Pluminel runs off, and Alec stays on the island and we get page after page after PAGE of stuff like this:
His mind could no longer think in terms of what was real and unreal. There was only quick and final acceptance of the fact that somehow he had bridged two worlds, one of dense matter in which he lived and a psychic world which nobody else knew.
Feelings he could not describe came to him from all directions, flowing, descending, penetrating his very being until they became a single physical sensation, that of a fierce dark wind blowing on him, through him, reaching into his very soul. There was no longer any crimson light, just darkness.
This goes on and on and on but then Alec snaps out of it to find the Black. He comes across Pluminel, whose face has been caved in and decides that basically Pluminel was murdered by Kovi. Yeah.
Alec emerges from the swamp to find out that everyone has been worried about him and also that no one believes his story about Pluminel and Kovi. Frankly, they gaslight the shit out of Alec, which is unfortunate.
For several days afterward, he had been kept quiet by drugs. He held no bitterness toward Joe Early and the others, knowing it had been for the best.
oh HELL no.
Henry is in on the gaslighting too. There’s a totally perfunctory race scene back in New York – the Black wins, of course – that’s mostly filled with Henry thinking about how Alec has changed in some indefinable way. It’s ok, though, it hasn’t affected his riding.
Alec had made no mistakes in the race today because his instincts, not his mind, governed his riding.
Remember my theory about how the whole series makes infinite more sense if you imagine that Alec is suffering from PTSD throughout it? Yeah. Basically that comes roaring back in this book.
Henry is at least trying, though. He takes Alec to the circus because he saw a poster for the Ghost – though he at least half-believes it’ll be fake, or not the same horse, or pretty much anything that proves Alec was lying or making up his experiences.
It’s the same mare, though. They watch her same freestyle performance, complete with weird horrible music.
A strange feeling swept over Henry. He felt that somehow he was descending into a deep void, and he didn’t like it.
Why does anyone go to this show???
Afterwards, they go backstage and Alec buys the Ghost for $30,000, which, adjusted for inflation from 1969 to 2018, is $212,000. Holy shit. Can I just once again remind everyone that less than a year ago they were so broke they had to bring the Black back to racing just to rebuild their barn?
“She’s in foal to the Black, so how could I let her get away from us?”
That’s his reason. One rendezvous with the Black and she’s in foal. And also they need to own all the Black’s offspring, for…reasons? (Except for Bonfire, I guess.)
Well? Most insane one yet, or do you still think aliens at Azul Island holds top honors? Does it make sense to you that the world’s foremost expert on dressage lures the Black to the swamp to breed his mare, and then goes insane? (I mean, really, couldn’t he just have waited a few months and paid a stud fee like everyone else?)