As soon as I knew there would be horses in THE DAMAGE DONE, I saw the risk of putting off readers who might take it for a Horse Book. That's partly why I was so insistent that the cover on first publication shouldn't show a horse. But, as I said in my previous post, I don't think the Anne Magill painting, highly accomplished though it is, captures the atmosphere of the story. The new cover I think does better, and this time there are horses, though not in the foreground.
As a child, I was addicted to horse and pony stories to the point where my parents once tried to ban me from reading any more. I devoured everything by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Josephine, Christine and Diana, and also the less Pony-Club-and-competition-oriented stories by Monica Edwards. Later there was the marvellous K M Peyton. From the Pullein-Thompsons, in particular, I absorbed all sorts of information about eggbutt snaffles, impulsion and double oxers. If only I could have learned the Periodic Table or French irregular verbs as avidly. My addiction also led to hours at the local riding school devotedly mucking out stables and cleaning saddlery in exchange for free rides.
In the Pullein-Thompson books, enthusiasm for riding was inextricably linked with fox-hunting. It wasn't part of my riding-school experience, but the stories made it clear that along with your detailed knowledge of laminitis, brushing boots and bran mashes you were expected to want to hunt, to be fully acquainted with hunting etiquette and to make every effort to acquit yourself well. To head a fox in the hunting field would be shameful, and to be sent home by the Master the ultimate disgrace. The morality of hunting was never explored (as far as I can remember); anyone opposed to it would be seen as eccentric as best. In one of Christine Pullein-Thompson's stories - I can't recall which - a local landowner anxious about the hound-pack frightening her deer is considered a prissy spoilsport. Anyway, I'd better not get side-tracked. I resisted all that and am firmly anti-bloodsports of all kinds. I've never understood how people who lavish every kind of attention on their horses and ponies can happily set off for a day whose purpose is to inflict terror and death on another animal. It's an arrogant, domineering aspect of horseyness which I've always disliked.
When I wrote THE DAMAGE DONE, another horse story was at the back, and often the front, of my mind - EQUUS, by Peter Shaffer, a very striking play and later a film, about a deeply disturbed boy who has blinded six horses and is now being treated by a psychiatrist. We start by knowing about the awful crime committed by this boy, Alan Strang, yet come to understand the mystical, religious reverence he has for horses, and the opposing impulses that lead him to attack them so horrifically. I saw the play in the 1970s, with Peter Firth playing Alan; more recently the play has received wide publicity with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role. In the theatre, the horses are stylised representations played by actors according to Shaffer's very precise instructions and to curiously moving effect; I prefer it to the film, which of course uses real animals.
At the time I wrote the novel, there were spasmodic reports of attacks on horses in country fields, along with speculation about who would do this and why. Class envy? If not that, then why horses, rather than cows or sheep, which would surely be easier to corner? In my story, there are local rumours of such attacks, and Kirsty's first thought is that it would be daunting for anyone unfamiliar with horses to approach large, unpredictable animals in fields at night; it must be someone who knows how to handle them, and that makes her see the strange boy she meets early on as a suspect. She imagines someone stalking "with the intention of wounding and hurting; imagined her own hand grasping the knife, her senses burning with some uncontrollable anger. If you could do that, what could you not do?"
THE DAMAGE DONE began, as several of my novels have, with a picture in my mind. Rather similar to the new cover, it was of a girl, at dusk, looking out into fields and feeling afraid. What she was afraid of I didn't at first know, but gradually Kirsty took shape, her own fears and insecurities combining with anxiety for the horses in her care. I didn't want Kirsty to be a particularly horsey girl, though she'd have to be fairly competent to take charge as she does; she's been landed in this situation by her competitive brother, who runs a small livery yard but now has bigger things in his sights. Set against the horseyness of the livery yard and the people who frequent it is Dally, the self-contained, forthright boy who has his own reasons for staying hidden. Dally's attitude towards horses and riders is not unlike Alan Strang's in EQUUS: "Putting them through their paces! Bloody gymkhanas! ... No one understands," Alan says, and Dally: "Why do they put up with it? Why do they let you order them about? Do this, walk like this, jump that - what gives anyone the right?"
Kirsty's temporary responsibility for horses gives her a demanding occupation which allows her to avoid the crowded public places for which she's developed a phobia; it lets her avoid facing questions about her future; and above all, makes her constantly anxious for the horses in her care, several of them turned out in fields not visible from the house. I hope it's a novel with horses in it, rather than horse story, primarily about Kirsty's own traumas - her sense of being let down by everyone she thinks she should be able to trust, her fear of being alone set against her greater fear of crowds, and her gradual emergence from the panic that stifles her. The danger to the horses, though real, is also a metaphor for all that Kirsty finds threatening in her dealings with people.
Dysart, the psychologist in EQUUS, finds himself out of his depth in his dealings with Alan: "The only thing I know is this: a horse's head is finally unknowable to me. Yet I handle children's heads - which I must presume to be more complicated ... " And there's a close but oblique borrowing from EQUUS quite well buried in the narrative. I could offer a prize if I thought anyone was likely to find it.