The title work of Katherine Anne Porter’s three-short-novel book, Pale Horse, Pale Rider ostensibly covers a woman, Miranda, dealing with the influenza epidemic of 1918. Indeed, the work–Porter famously detested the term “novella” in favor of “short novel”–spends roughly half of its span dealing with Miranda’s health decline. The delirium that she finds surrounding her at the illness’ worst point, when she conflates the illness, her attending physician, and the anti-German propaganda of World War I employs some of the best psychological effects developed by more celebrated modernist writers. Yet Porter actually employs these devices for a sound reason, describing what would remain otherwise indescribable for anyone who had not remained coherent throughout a severe illness’ incoherence.
To dismiss “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as simply a “flu story” is, I would argue, to sell the work and Porter’s artistry far short. If one is less inclined to simply declare the author an artist, then the question might be why the first half of the work exists. Do we really need to know so much about Miranda’s relationship with Adam? Her struggles with the Liberty Bond salesmen? Her encounter with a testy performer who had suffered a bad review? I’m left to assume that Porter was either being self-indulgent or had some purpose for the inclusion of the material. Perhaps the most obvious place to look for illumination on the larger meaning of the story is in the passage of scripture that provided Porter’s title. In Revelation 6:1-8, we read:
I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds[a] of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Thus we have four horses, white, red, black, and pale, representing four plagues upon the earth: conquest, war, famine, and death. Each of these horses makes an appearance in the pages of this story.
As “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is set during World War I, conquest and war seem to be a given. Famine appears in the scarcity involved in war-time rationing. Death, also, seems obvious, hanging over the soldiers, such as Adam, about to head off to war, plus in the influenza victims whose funerals parade past the couple.
On the other hand, perhaps I jumped too quickly to conflate conquest and war. My reading of this story suggests that it is all about conquest with the Miranda as the object of conquest by virtually everyone she encounters. The bond salesmen lead off this assault. The badly reviewed performer attempts to bend Miranda’s critical judgment to his own. The newspaper editor has demoted Miranda to a theater reviewer as a result of her employing a sense of decency in her decision not to pursue a story. The editor thus attempts to conquer and control Miranda’s sense of ethics. Miranda does not feel the urgency of the war or the patriotic fires that cause others to support it so whole-heartedly, yet her world is filled with figures attempting to bend her to its will. Even Adam aims at conquest, yet his “invasion” is much more benign and welcomed. Finally, the flu literally invades Miranda’s body and Adam’s death seems to conquer whatever remaining happiness she possessed.
As an exploration of a human caught in a crossfire not her own making, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is far more than simply a story of influenza. I leave this work wondering if there is not more to the idea of Adam, self-sacrifice, and resistance, but these inchoate ideas will have to wait for another day.