‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ by Katherine Anne Porter
I’ve never agreed with the idea that it’s tedious to hear about other people’s dreams. What could be more interesting than a view into someone’s unconscious? Much of this story, from Porter’s three-part meditation on mortality, comes from the fever dreams of Miranda, a theater critic for a newspaper who nearly dies of Spanish influenza. There’s nothing dull about the way Porter takes us deep into Miranda’s psyche as it brushes up against oblivion. And it’s no wonder Miranda is tempted to remain there, motionless and truly at peace, when the world outside churns with the chaos and grief of dual crises: a world war and a plague. 

From Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Harcourt Brace, 1939

‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’ by Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas in 1890.
Old Granny Weatherall lies on her bed waiting to die, attended by Dr. Harry and her daughter Cornelia. Her consciousness spills over the edges of the narrative proper, blending with a third-person voice, merging memory with fantasy and dream. A dead child wanders in – her name is Hapsy (not quite Happy, just as Cornelia is not quite Cordelia). And then in comes jilter George, who left her waiting at the altar. She patches a life together nonetheless, but the jilting haunts her on her deathbed. ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’ is an extraordinary feat of harnessing consciousness in prose. It culminates in a devastating negative epiphany that echoes Emily Dickinson’s ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-‘: “/and then it was /There interposed a Fly /- With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz /- Between the light – and me -/ And then the Windows failed /- and then I could not see to see -“

First published in transition, 1929 and first collected in Flowering Judas, Harcourt Brace 1930

‘Flowering Judas’ by Katherine Anne Porter

Porter is one of those authors who, on reading their work for the first time, leads me to wonder why it’s taken me so long to find them. ‘Flowering Judas’ is the story of Laura, a young American teacher who has joined the Mexican revolution and finds herself the subject of three warring agitators’ attentions. Although she is desired by these men, ironically, her commitment to the cause is doubted as one of her suitors says that he…

cannot understand why she works so hard for the revolutionary idea unless she loves some man who is in it.

Meanwhile, Laura fears that she is becoming as corrupt as they are. She runs errands for the men but is haunted by the knowledge that her actions may have led to some person’s undeserving death. She is a romantic, disillusioned by the vanity of the so-called revolutionaries and the life she has ended up with. A sense of disaster stalks her, which manifests in the form of a dream, one in which the man whose death Laura believes herself complicit in haunts her. Her ideals are as dust; it is the way of all things…

Some day this world, now seemingly so composed and eternal, to the edges of every sea shall be merely a tangle of gaping trenches, of crashing walls and broken bodies. Everything must be torn from its accustomed place where it has rotted for centuries, hurled skyward and distributed, cast down again clean as rain, without separate identity. Nothing shall survive that the stiffened hands of poverty have created for the rich and no-one shall be left alive except the elect spirits destined to procreate a new world cleansed of cruelty and injustice, ruled by benevolent anarchy…

From Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Penguin Classics, 2011

‘Maria Concepción’ by Katherine Anne Porter

This astonishing story, set around the time of the Mexican revolution, is one that keeps coming to mind while driving around the peaceful country roads and village markets near our home in Thailand. Porter’s sensuous descriptions are uniquely memorable for the way they evoke landscapes and the characters situated in them. Maria Concepción is a stunning character, a powerful woman trying to adhere to the rules of her village society while longing for a child. Discovering her husband’s infidelity, she murders his mistress and appropriates her infant. Her actions are condoned by the community, which seems to survive only at great cost to individual women. Thanks to the enormous skill of the writer, the conflicts inherent in the patriarchal and colonial setting are not shrill and strident but woven intricately into the fabric of the story, which has the overall impression of a light-filled fresco. In an interview, Porter said that she took no more than an evening to pen a short story, with little further revision. Her extraordinary artistry is evident in this piece.

First published in 1922. Included in Flowering Judas, Penguin Random House, 2014. Available online here. A video interview with the author—from 1973, when she was in her eighties—is here

‘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