‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ by Katherine Anne Porter

What is this whiteness and silence but the absence of pain?

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ was originally the final part of a triptych of longer tales alongside ‘Old Mortality’ and ‘Noon Wine’, and I’d encourage anyone to read all three. Porter, with the lightest of touches, infuses the works with a too-real (almost surreal) sense of time passing—past, present, future; morning, noon, night; the turning of the earth, and the ever-present spectre of the Great War—the war to end all wars.

Although Porter tells us the bells are ringing to announce the end of the war, ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is far from celebratory. We infer much of the story through the fevered dream fragments of a young woman suffering with Spanish influenza. It is a story constructed of symbols, metaphors, and the repeated refrain of an old spiritual once heard sung in the oil fields of Texas. It’s about the peace of death and the violence of living, and an undefined hope for the future. Since this year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, and because this story is one of the most finely wrought pieces of writing to come out of those last hundred years, it feels like the perfect story for this anthology.

First published in 1937; also in Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2011)

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ by Katherine Anne Porter

A fever dream narrated through the altered consciousness of a young woman suffering through the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Some of the most value-added, special sentences I have ever read anywhere. ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is also the title story of a book-length three-story sequence that is probably Porter’s best work, alongside her shorter story ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,’ which pursues a not-dissimilar narrative strategy.

from Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Harcourt Brace, 1939; also Penguin Modern Classics, 2011