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They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  7,595 ratings  ·  742 reviews
The marathon dance craze flourished during the 1930s, but the underside was a competition and violence unknown to most ballrooms—a dark side that Horace McCoy's classic American novel powerfully captures.

"Were it not in its physical details so carefully documented, it would be lurid beyond itself." —Nation
Paperback, 122 pages
Published September 15th 1995 by Serpent's Tail (first published 1935)
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Average rating 3.86  · 
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Glenn Russell
Sep 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? contains one of the bleakest lines in all of literature. It’s where Gloria, who dances in the marathon dance, asks without a trace of irony or black humor, ”Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” Can there ever be a more negative, more downbeat, pessimistic view of life?

Turns out, Gloria was raised in the most dreadful way, by abusive, cruel people in
Oct 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Why did you kill her? the policemen in the rear seat asked.
"She asked me too," I said.
"Is that the only reason you got?" the policemen in the rear seat asked.
"They shoot horses, don't they?" I asked.

5 stars to this!
Sep 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
I came to this in a roundabout way, this story was in a book of crime novels of the 30s and 40s that I got from the library in order to read The Big Clock. I had just read a story by Jonathan Lethem about how virtual reality technology could be used for demeaning purposes in the future, such as having people perform in virtual reality suits and compete against each other for a prize. Lethem mentions 1930s dance contests in his preface to "How We Got In Town and Out Again".

This story is so bleak
Paul Bryant
Feb 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels



Short and very brutal, this is a matter-of-fact account of the bleakest despair. The marathon dance contests of the 20s and 30s were like something dreamed up by Caligula but they really happened and the powers that be never saw fit to close them down, even as the young couples sagged to the floor from physical and mental exhaustion after only being allowed 10 minutes rest every two hours for three solid weeks. It was all “don’t worry folks, they’ll be back i
Greg Watson
Jan 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a bleak novel which shows humanity at the bottom of desperation and despair. McCoy spent time at an event like the one depicted in the book. He conveys the raw emotion of the Depression-era Hollywood and those would-be actors and directors struggling to survive.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? doesn't offer a glimmer of hope. "There is no new experience in life. Something may happen to you that you think has never happened before, that you think is brand new, but you are mistaken." In sho
Oct 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommended to Brian by: Anthony Vacca
If the Great Depression wasn't soul-suckingly terrible enough, there were cruel men willing to take it down another few notches by creating Dance Marathons to give gutter-poor people a shot at winning just enough money to keep them alive for a few more months by dancing for days (weeks?!?) on-end. Selling tickets to watch their misery. Oh, the humanity.

McCoy uses this minor-but-dark chapter from the '30s as his vehicle for telling the even more depressing story of Gloria, a lady sick of the worl
Dan Schwent
Robert and Gloria enter a marathon dance contest with $1000 as the top prize. Too bad Gloria thinks about death more than winning...

Horace McCoy is bleak enough to be one of Jim Thompson's drinking buddies. This tale is really slim but also kind of exhausting. McCoy's depiction of a dance contest that lasts over a month is hellish and he paints a depressing picture of life during the Great Depression. See what I did there?

It's a pretty powerful story. You know how it ends in the first few pages
Emily May
Aug 19, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Emily May by: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
Shelves: 2012
This book is essentially about existentialism and nihilism. However, the plot of this small novel features little more than a dance marathon competition and the petty arguments that happen behind the scenes. I suppose this is meant to form a platform on which Gloria can whine about life but it's just insanely boring. I obviously made a mistake choosing to get some of the shorter novels on the 1001 list out of the way, so far they've all been really disappointing. ...more
Jul 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: noir
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is a novel that speaks to our times: we are inundated with reality shows, where fame and fortune, tragedy and despair are brought to us on a whim and often in the public eye. The public’s livelihoods and fates are broadcast for the world to see, and this sells.

The basis for this story is concerning the promotion of a dance marathon during the Great Depression. The winner is promised cash and free food. And, unlike the many reality shows we see today, there is a rea
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They" is such an incredible title that I knew I would eventually have to find a copy and read it. It was written in 1935 by Horace McCoy, who wrote a handful of hardboiled novels and worked on screenplays. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" was not actually made into a movie until after McCoy's death. It came out in 1969, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarazin. Although fairly short as a novel and not widely read at the time it was published ...more
Death is Better Than Life!

With both having a desire to be famous in Hollywood someday, Robert and Gloria are happily introduced. They probably wouldn’t have even met if he hadn’t mistaken Gloria, trying to catch a bus, as waving at him.

The pair seems perfectly mismatched in the beginning. Gloria appears at best a Debbie Downer, and Robert the glass-half-full kind of guy.

But really, they are the perfect pair. They complement each other exactly without even realizing it. And the author doesn’t let
Jon Nakapalau
Aug 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
At the end of this book, when this question is asked, you will be horrified.
Apr 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: moden American classics
In the 1930's Hollywood wannabees were humiliated by making them dance for endless hours in public, reminding me of American Idol's more sadistic moments.

Still fresh today as the day it was written, "They Shoot Horses" is a bizarre existential horror story about people who have shit canned their pride thinking there's a pot of gold at the end of their self-inflicted degradation.

(The only person to attain stardom from the marathons was June Havoc, who was Gypsy Rose Lee's sister, so she would hav
Carla Remy
Jan 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
From 1935. Audiences then would attend months long endurance "dance" marathons. It was a human spectacle and, while we had movies and radio, we didn't yet have TVs in our homes, so I guess everything was very different. This is my second time reading this, and now I've read two other books by McCoy. I liked them, but this is undoubtedly his best. For one thing it documents and humanizes a real crazy trend of the Great Depression. All the details, the torturous derbies and the wedding. Another re ...more
Finding out the meaning of the title broke my heart!
I know I must be missing something here, but I just don't get why this has endured as a profound piece of classic American literature. Apparently 1930s French Existentialists went gaga over it and Simone de Beauvoir named it as "the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America". So if you are a literary theorist, and get off on those labels and how they come to mean something to a certain group of people during a certain period of time, then you probably want to read this book and are ...more
Chaunceton Bird
Sep 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: noir-narcotics
Great shot of pulp fiction. Short, sharp, and memorable.
Mark Desrosiers
Dec 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
Wow, talk about your serial misapprehensions. First dismissed by American critics as grim dime-novel trash, then adopted by the French as a founding example of their cross-eyed tedious existentialism, this novel begs to be read -- especially in 2012 -- for what it is: a story about the exploitation by racketeers of a collapsing, desperate society, and how nihilism is the only logical response to it. The marathon dance here is an attempt at money-making voyeurism, complete with corporate sponsors ...more
Doug H
Feb 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kirk-recommended
This is definitely a dark little gem, but I really don’t see it as belonging to the Noir literary genre. To me, its violence and darkness seemed very peripheral to its more meditative existential content and I believe it shares more of an affinity with The Catcher in the Rye than The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. Anyway, labels are always misleading. What really matters is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. And, in the process of enjoying it, I learned more than a few new things about the good bad o ...more
lark benobi
A one-day bleak read. Relentless and great.

Noir's relationship with social criticism is evident in this novel. The story's desperation is fueled by the real desperation of poverty.

Not as brilliant, as noir goes, as The Postman Always Rings Twice...but it's so confidently written that its flaws become moving. It captures a moment and an age.
Nancy Oakes
Nov 20, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Nancy by: 1001 books to read before you die
Shelves: american-fiction
Most definitely a no-miss book, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930s. They Shoot Horses, Don't They is short (only 127 pages) but incredibly powerful, examining not only how much pain or humiliation a person can withstand in his or her own fight for survival or that of others, but it also looks at the utter hopelessness for some in life's unending dance toward the American dream. Stay here for the shorter review, or click here for a longer one.

Robert and Gloria, two young people w
Oct 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This novella contains the greatest (or bleakest) nihilist in all of literature, the incomparable Gloria.
At just over 100 pages, to say much about the story is to ruin the reading of it so I shall just comment on the fact that during reading one can feel outraged, depressed and relieved that these dance marathons are consigned to the shameful annals of history and after reading one can muse on how today's society would never condone watching young people spend every moment of their existence perf
When I heard They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was a book (I'd seen the movie many years ago and found it a strange, disturbing movie), I thought I should check it out. Horace McCoy lived from 1897 - 1955 and wrote 5 novels and one that wasn't finished, plus numerous short stories for a magazine called Black Mask. He had an interesting, somewhat checkered life, from the information on wikipedia.

One of his jobs when he was struggling was as a bouncer at a marathon dance contest. He tried to turn it
May 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
“…she died in agony, friendless, alone…”

Thus the book begins…It’s the 1930’s right outside Hollywood in Santa Monica California and yet another version of the marathon dance craze is being enacted. Two Hollywood hopefuls, Gloria and Robert, happen upon one another and decide to team up, after all there’s a $1,000 prize to the last couple standing. So begins this tortured story. It’s one of struggle reflective of the depression. The couples are required to stay in motion with a ten minute rest br
May 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
* Read from LOA's exquisite Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s edition*

Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a bleak, tautly written existential noir text which wouldn't look out of place in Arthur Schopenhauer's personal library. I imagine the old fellow perusing it with a satisfied grin on his face. It's his philosophy's perfect expression in many ways.

The novel takes place during the dance marathon craze of the 1930's. Impoverished, often mentally broken proletarian
Novella length, but it packs an emotional wallop. Bleak, grim, seedy, gritty, the story of a dance marathon in the 1930's and how far people will go to survive, how much a soul can take.

Another of those novels where I couldn't see how the title could fit in with the synopsis on offer but "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" fit perfectly.

Well worth a look at.
Sam Quixote
Nov 14, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gloria is a burned out wannabe actress in 1930s Hollywood who, after failing to win a dance marathon (dancing for literally weeks on end) asks her dance partner Robert to shoot her in the head – which he does. This isn’t a spoiler as it’s the framing device of the novel with Robert telling the reader at the start of the book as he stands in the dock being sentenced by the judge of how he came to meet Gloria and of their time in the hellish carnival atmosphere of the dance marathon.

Dance maratho
Mar 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Who knew a novel about a marathon dance could be so bleak? I’m not sure what to make of this book. It was original, quite unlike anything else I’ve read; for the most part it kept me engaged and entertained. The main problem I had is that I just didn’t buy into the ending. From the way the novel is structured, we know within the first few pages how the book is going to end; the story itself is the background that leads up to that ending. The problem is, it didn’t feel like the last few pages wer ...more
Dec 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2013
This is the second novella that appears in a Library of America collection called Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s .

Similar to the first novella in the anthology titled The Postman Always Rings Twice , They Shoot Horses, Don't They? also struck me as odd and unexpected(perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with Noir fiction). Still, like the first, I enjoyed it.

For those of you who are also unfamiliar with Noir fiction, a little blurb from Wikipedia can be found in the spoiler
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Horace Stanley McCoy (1897–1955) was an American novelist whose gritty, hardboiled novels documented the hardships Americans faced during the Depression and post-war periods. McCoy grew up in Tennessee and Texas; after serving in the air force during World War I, he worked as a journalist, film actor, and screenplay writer, and is author of five novels including They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (193 ...more

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“It's peculiar to me,' she said, 'that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me - who want to die but haven't got the guts -” 2 likes
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