The Mount by Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller is probably one of the most consistently great and underrated writers ever. I haven’t yet read anything by her that I didn’t like. The Mount is no exception — it is a gentle story of an alien invasion and human servitude, and it is delightful and funny and heartbreaking. The alien overlords (the Hoots) in this case think that they are benign — they are weak (with the exception of their giant strong hands); they rely on humans for transportation and quite literally breed them like horses:

“We’re not against you, we’re for. In fact we’re built for you and you for us – we, so our weak little legs will dangle on your chest and our tail down the back. Exactly as you so often transport your own young when they are weak and small. It’s a joy. Just like a mother-walk.

You’ll be free. You’ll have a pillow. You’ll have a water faucet and a bookcase. We’ll pat you if you do things fast enough and don’t play hard to catch. We’ll rub your legs and soak your feet.”

The protagonist is Charley (aka Smiley), a descendant of a long line of prize-winning Seattles (a racing breed of humans), and he is mostly interested in being a good mount to his host, and in winning races. Things, however, are changing.

It is a wonderful story in that it avoids easy answers — for example, it doesn’t position the Hoots as universally bad. Charley’s bond with his host turns out to be not just a shortcoming on his part, and saying anymore would be giving away too much of a delightful plot. What struck me about this book though is not just the obvious comparison between humans and horses, but also the fact that the Hoots treat all humans with love and yet this love is by its very nature restrictive and abusive. Humans are adored, spoiled, complimented, and objectified. One cannot help but consider that this is very much the way humanity is treating women.

It is simultaneously funny and enraging and oh so recognizable, the way Hoots treat people: you are so beautiful, we love you, we are nothing without you, now go back to your stable or you will be beaten. It is difficult not to recognize this dynamics, the same play of every abusive relationship. It is difficult not to fall under the spell of this prose:

“Your young will stay with their mothers until weaning. We’ll stroke them all over to make them love us. Four months is the crucial time for imprinting you predators. And your young do love us. You all do. We’re the ones with the treats. Leather straps will help keep you in line and help us keep our seat. There will sometimes be prickers on our toes. How and if these are used, and when, depends, of course, on you.”

Chilling, isn’t it? And yet, there is such loveliness against the terror, such a kind and humorous observer, that this one of the most sympathetic and endearing books I’ve read lately.

3 comments on “The Mount by Carol Emshwiller

  1. Jen says:

    I keep hearing good things about Carol Emshwiller and I can’t get myself to like her stories. Ok, I haven’t read that many, one novel (Carmen Dog) and two short stories (Killers and All Washed Up While Looking for a Better World), but the only one that was interesting for me (but not in an ‘OMG so cool!’ way) was Killers. The others… I still can’t put my finger on it. They have a certain type of weirdness that doesn’t sit well with me.

  2. Yes! I’m always disappointed that this book doesn’t get mentioned more often. I haven’t read much else of hers–just a few short stories here and there–but I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a few years, but I remember I really appreciated the nuance–as you say, that it doesn’t go for the easy answers. I hope others check it out.

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