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12 October 2011 @ 05:03 am
Psi Has A 'Price' -- The Rockinghorse Winner (Short Story)  
This story was published in July 1926. The full text of it can be found here.

The plot is simple and straightforward enough, and can be found summarized on Wikipedia here.

This story brings us an early instance of what has become Psi Fail Bingo Free Space 2: Psi as a gift the bearer must "pay for"/psi has a "price."

It is also a "Psi people use their abilities to get rich (or to make others rich) by gambling" story (a square on the bingo cards), and may be the very first example of "psi people need to interface with machines in order to have 'useful' power or ability" (another bingo square), a narrative which is often repeated in fiction in the following decades. Little Paul here can't know the future unless he rides furiously on his rocking horse until it puts him into a trance.

Little Paul grows up in a loveless home. His parents are unlucky, and their emotional energies are all turned to wishing they had more money, which the children psychically experience as the house whispering. Although it is not stated outright, the implication is this is a family that has strayed from the path of God, strayed from love and faith into a sole focus on the worldly, on money, and keeping up appearances. Into this is born Paul, a child ("innocent").

Children dying for the sins of others ("children as Christlike") is a very old trope, much older than this story. Children having psi experiences and dying for others' sins is actually also very old, within the context of Christian narratives. For example, little Eva has a vision of the Virgin Mary before dying in Uncle Tom's Cabin, motivating others to change their ways, reject slavery and racial prejudice, better themselves, and free Uncle Tom.

Eva's vision is more explicitly religious than Paul's, but everyone knows that "Paul" is the name of a saint and the author of one of the gospels, and in this story, his only named sister is Joan, another important saint. (So D.H. Lawrence isn't fooling anyone.)

We are being set up for more bingo squares. Specifically, this story is "Psi child dies so that parents can see some evil in their ways." More generally, this story is "Psi person sacrifices self for non-psi others by using psi -- and is thus redeemed." Or at least his family is.

So little Paul keeps riding that horse to have a vision of the winner. Each time he does so, something increasingly unnatural happens to his eyes (bingo square "Psi as unnatural"). Psi is presented as something that consumes you little by little, eating away at your life force or claiming your soul in increments, until it kills you (bingo square "Psi makes you a little less human or kills you a little each time you use it (it destroys or consumes your life force or soul!)."

It doesn't appear in this story that Paul has these abilities through having made a pact with the devil, but it is clear that this "gift" is driving him mad, killing him, and ultimately going to consume him (through which his family has a chance at redemption). It also appears he got this gift by force, commanding the horse to take him where the luck is, "slashing" the horse with his whip, and forcing the horse to do as he demands:

"When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright.

"'Now!' he would silently command the snorting steed. 'Now take me to where there is luck! Now take me!'

And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it. So he would mount again and start on his furious ride, hoping at last to get there."

Thus, it almost feels in this story as if he has "stolen" these gifts, which justifies the "price" he has to pay for them (violent illness and death). His acquisition of psi awarenesses in this story is framed as a sort of transgression, having gone against God in a sense, demanded from Him something which man was not "meant to have." (Three more bingo squares.)

The first time he rides the horse into this trance, "his eyes had a strange glare in them." The next time we see him riding, the story says, "But Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes. He would speak to nobody when he was in full tilt," and "'Well, I got there!' he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart."

When Paul tells his uncle about the betting he's doing, it says, "The boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close together. The uncle stirred and laughed uneasily." When he first goes to the racetrack (to bet on the horse he knows will win), it says, "The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire." Then the boy's horse wins, and it says, "Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third. The child, flushed and with eyes blazing, was curiously serene."

The gardener says it's as if the boy got this information from heaven ("It's as if he had it from heaven, sir," Bassett reiterated). But the uncle becomes a partner anyway. They win more. The uncle says it makes him nervous, and the boy tells him not to worry. (Of course, for foreshadowing.) Again, there is some implication that what Paul is doing is unnatural, that it somehow "goes against God" and he will have to pay for this transgression. It's an early example of "psi as cheating," a common narrative in later decades (and a bingo square).

Paul tells his uncle about his plans to make money so the whispering in the house might stop. The text says, "The boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them, and he said never a word." (The fire is now cold!) They concoct a plan by which Paul can give his mother some of the money, but it backfires -- she spends profligately, wasting the money, and the whispers in the house go mad and scream how there must be more money, louder than ever.

The money doesn't solve his mother's problems, but only deepens her frivolous wastefulness. She is not led onto a path of righteousness by her son's sacrifice, driving him to greater and greater sacrifice, and on obsession to win the Derby, even at the cost of his own life.

When he loses a couple of races and is desperate to know the winner of the Derby, it says,

"He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.
'Let it alone, son! Don't you bother about it!" urged Uncle Oscar. But it was as if the boy couldn't really hear what his uncle was saying.

'I've got to know for the Derby! I've got to know for the Derby!' the child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness." (Bingo square "Psi makes you crazy!")

His mother, anxious, tells him to go to the seaside.

"But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes," it says, and he tells her he cannot go until after the Derby.

Then, "The Derby was drawing near, and the boy grew more and more tense. He hardly heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really uncanny."

His mother starts to have "sudden strange seizures of uneasiness" about him, but by that point it's too late.

She comes in on him riding his horse into a trance on last time:

"'It's Malabar!" he screamed in a powerful, strange voice. 'It's Malabar!'
His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. Then he fell with a crash to the ground, and she, all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her, rushed to gather him up.

But he was unconscious, and unconscious he remained, with some brain-fever. He talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side."

Blazing eyes strange and senseless, till he collapses unconscious with a brain-fever.

Here we have another bingo square: "Psi person dies so that non-psi people can learn moral lesson." This one is very very common, up to the present day. Psi people are always dying to save the world or to save non-psi people, or so that non-psi people can learn moral lessons or lessons about "life and death" or lessons about fate or about free will -- or whatever point it is that the author wants to make.

Anyway, little Paul is unconscious and delirious with "brain-fever" for three days.

"The boy, with his rather long, curly hair, was tossing ceaselessly on the pillow. He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones."

The gardener comes in and tells Paul that his horse won, and how much money he has won. Now he tells his mother what has really been going on, but he dies that night.

The ending is very weird:

"And even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother's voice saying to her, 'My God, Hester, you're eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, poor devil, he's best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.'"

So, her brother is telling her that she's essentially traded her son for eighty-thousand pounds, and that this is actually what's best for the poor boy, because now he's gone out of this life of having to ride his rocking-horse to pick a winner? He's saying that this ending is what's best for the child? If I'm reading this right, it's an early example of the "Psi person is presented as better off dead" trope, which later becomes "Murder of psi people framed as 'mercy killings' (they were miserable anyway)" trope and various other narratives in which violence against psi people is presented as justified.

Anyway, this is how the story ends -- there is no further dialogue shown. Maybe this is a family which is just too selfish to actually care about this boy or his sacrifice. Maybe his death brings them a path to "redemption." Certainly the mother never thanks him for anything he has done (pay attention, dear readers: NO ONE EVER THANKS A PSI PERSON. For anything. Ever.).

Anyway, it goes without saying that the themes introduced and reinforced in this work are both greatly influential and greatly damaging. The story was adapted to film in 1949 (which I will review in another post), thus reaching a wider audience (and continuing in influence a generation later). The story uses psi elements to make a point about (among other things) social class, a classic "psi as literary device" move which also persists in so much later fiction (and another bingo square).

These messages are also damaging. The audience learns from this tale that stories involving psi characters or psi experiences are ultimately not "about" psi people and experiences, but the moral or religious "lessons" that non-psi people should learn from the sacrifice of psi people (including our deaths). The audience learns that psi awarenesses are something one must "pay for," that there must always be a "price" associated with who we are, a price that is here exacted by otherworldly forces, but which in other works is exacted by human forces, or simply framed as an inevitable inner torment. Psi readers and viewers will be told yet again that our place in the narrative of our own lives is to sacrifice and suffer--if not outright die--for someone else's benefit, and that we must somehow "pay for" our awarenesses, because that's just the way it is.

The audience sees in this story a narrative in which the boy's awarenesses have a "transgressive" or even sinister nature to them, here having been, in a sense, "demanded" or "stolen" from higher powers. There is an implication that these awarenesses are something human beings are not "meant to possess," which is why there is a price to pay. We psi readers and viewers will be told, yet again, that it is "unnatural" to be the way we are, that our awarenesses are something man is not "meant to have." We are included only as a literary device for the author to talk about something else (social class, for instance, or materialism, or some vague moral about sin). Our being aware of the world (re-framed as "using" one's psi abilities, as if this is actually a "choice" and something that can be separated from one's other sensory and mental faculties) will eat our souls piece by piece, and finally kill us by horrible illness. Our awarenesses are transgressive, and we are going to be killed by our choices to be more aware of our universe (and to benefit from any resulting knowledge). Psi makes us crazy. Movies about us are sinister. When we do things for others, no one even thinks to thank us (and why should they?).

No one really cares at our passing, no one mourns for us. A fundamental disruption in nature has occurred at our introduction in the story (or when it is that we "become psi"), which is only finally resolved by our deaths (or in some later works, our loss of psi, or banishment). When we die, we're actually better off dead. Our deaths bring possible redemption for others.

If you do not believe me yet about these incessantly recurring themes, keep reading this blog, and you will see many, MANY more examples. Please also bear in mind that this is what stories/books/movies about psi characters generally look like -- the number of works about realistic psi characters who are healthy, functional humans, part of their communities, not "othered," and not used as plot-devices is extremely small. These problematic narratives repeat and repeat against a backdrop of almost no narratives which frame us otherwise. Even though most young psi people today have never read or watched The Rockinghorse Winner because it is so old, we have all encountered its literary children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the people we interact with at home, school and work have also read and watched and heard of these literary descendants. (Stephen King, for instance, was a big promoter of this "psi people are cursed and have to pay a price and die horrible deaths to restore balance to the community" idea.)

Please take a moment to compare The Rockinghorse Winner to Nosferatu (with the interpretation that Nina dies at the end). Please go back and read my comments on the ending of that film. Nina also has sacrificed herself for others, and like Paul (at least in some interpretations) she also ends up dead in the end. But her sacrifice and her death have no narrative connection to psi, or to the visions she had earlier. She chooses to sacrifice herself because any young woman pure of heart will do (not only a psi woman), and she's the only one who has read the book, and who knows. She doesn't die because she is psi, she doesn't die by "using" psi abilities, she is not literally or figuratively killed by her choice to be more aware of the universe. She isn't paying any "price" for being psi. Her psychic experiences serve a different narrative function: warning her husband of the danger he is in from the vampire, saving her husband's life, linking her with her husband during his long journey home, juxtaposing the distance telepathy of the "bad guys" with distance telepathy of the "good guys." Never is she the "obvious choice" to die by the end of the story "because she's having psychic experiences." Her existence is not the fundamental disturbance in the community which must be removed to restore balance at the end -- the vampire is that disturbance.

In many, many later works (probably too many to count, though I will try to hit the big ones), that narrative role is played by the psi character, even in movies which are hailed as presenting a so called "positive" or "sympathetic" view of psi. My argument, of course, is that there is nothing "positive" about these presentations, and that the "sympathy" is fake and forced; we've just traded in one kind of busted problematic imaging for another one, albeit one that possibly leaves audience members less explicitly scared after reading or viewing, and maybe more filled with pity, or something else. It's just a different kind of problem.
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