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Monday, February 7, 2011

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead



 "It is a tale ... full of sound and fury; signifying nothing." -Shakespeare

The above quote tells quite a bit about Olmstead's Coal Black Horse. It is garnish and flair, it is pretty words and gruesome descriptions of the horrors of war, but it is a story without a point, except to say that life is without value and, eventually, someone will end yours and it will all be over.

Olmstead borrows heavily from the styles of Howard Bahr and Stephen Crane to create this book. From The Red Badge of Courage he borrows the stylistic device of never quite letting the reader what battlefields or locations the book is set in - that is until he suddenly tells you that it's in Gettysburg. How Robey avoids tens of thousands Confederate soldiers stacked up along the Potomac River (they massed there for days waiting for flood waters to go down) is a mystery to me. Why Olmstead decides to tell the reader the battlefield at that moment is a mystery as well.


From Bahr he borrows many of the same style of battlefield descriptions - the chaotic glimpses of a battle that remind me of quick movie cuts. The poetic descriptions of awful destruction, brutality and inhumanity are powerful, and reminiscent of Bahr. But, Olmstead lacks Bahr's ability to tell a story. Coal Black Horse plods along and eventually becomes a dark, depressing novel. It starts with death and ends with 2 murders and two attempted murders and no one seems to care about any of it. No love. No joy. Just dreary existence.

I note in the back cover that Olmstead received an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant to write this book. If this is what we are paying for with government-provided grants, than I suggest we stop. Certainly he can write this stuff on his own. Others write much better works and without government assistance.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 26, 2009.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Coal Black Horse.

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