In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939), the eponymous piece from your collection of three novellas, we follow twenty-four-year-old Miranda, as she falls ill during the flu pandemic of 1918. Making use of the stream of consciousness technique, shifting between first- and third-person narration, to convey a near-death experience, the novella is a puzzling combination of dreams, conversations, more traditional third person narration, and delirious thoughts. We are in 1918, WWI is about to come to an end, and Miranda is in love with an American soldier, Adam, who is on leave, awaiting to be shipped overseas any day.
The novella opens with a dream sequence, where Miranda, lying asleep, feels that she is “in her bed, but not in the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere.” She dreams that she is in an unfamiliar version of her childhood home in Texas. She has the uncanny urgency to get away before people wake up. She chooses a horse and rides off in the company of a pale, spectral stranger, whom she has a feeling to have met before. Here, once more, we have this uncanny sense of something both familiar and unfamiliar: a person who has visited our protagonist before but whom she is not able to place. Miranda pulls up her horse and watches as the vaguely familiar stranger rides past her.
The pale rider may be death, both familiar and unknowable – a rider against whom our protagonist is not willing to enter into a horse race. At least this time, she will refuse to accompany such uncanny rider. We are immersed in symbolism here: growing up means leaving one’s own home; but leaving home also means becoming aware of one’s own mortality.
In her dreams, Miranda has started a journey to death, and, as she awakens, she does so to the reality of the ever-present war, as if the awareness of death had seeped through her dream to the reality surrounding her (and vice-versa).
We are then thrown into Miranda’s day to day life (albeit still in a fragmented way, as if she were mixing different timelines, past and present, as well as dream and reality). She works as a theatre critic for a small-town newspaper, and lives modestly in a boarding house – where she has met Adam, and they have fallen in love. We follow her conversations with her colleagues in the newspaper office, her struggles to be taken seriously as a reporter (since writing on society and theatre is considered a “female job”), her charity work for war victims in a hospital, and her brief flirtation with Adam.
She keeps running into people as if she were sleepwalking, and the narrative repeatedly resumes back in the newspaper office or in the moments when Miranda and Adam are together, as if those were islands of reality in the midst of a nightmarish atmosphere.
They go for a walk, watch a play, go to a dance, then have a late night meal on a restaurant. Looming over their time together, however, is the certainty that this won’t last. War will claim Adam any day. Miranda tells him that she feels the “‘worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet. (…) It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two—what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body.’”
They don’t know, however, that death might be closer than what they think. On one of their walks together, Adam mentions a mysterious plague that has killed several soldiers. As they talk, funeral processions pass regularly through the streets. Miranda is feeling unwell, as if everything around her were closing in: we have a sense that something terrible is beginning to happen, and Miranda is already mourning Adam.
We are then thrown in what seems to be the following evening, when Miranda awakens from a deep, tormented sleep. She feels much worse, a medical doctor has been sent to see her when she was still unconscious, and Adam goes off to a drugstore to get a prescription for her. Miranda’s mind begins to wander again, as she falls asleep, only to wake up screaming a few moments later.
The boarding house owner, Miss Hobbes, is terrified that the girl might spread the disease and demands that Adam take Miranda out of the boarding house as soon as possible. The town has been devastated by the plague, the hospitals are full, the stores and restaurants are closed, and the streets are full of ambulances and funerals.
As they wait for a vacancy in a hospital and an ambulance to arrive, they spend the night together and, in an effort to keep awake, they recite the song “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, reminiscent of the Book of Revelation and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s a song about death, about the many things that a rider (death) has taken away: “Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away”. Death takes away the singer’s lover, mother, siblings, and the entire family, “But not the singer, not yet,” “Death always leaves one singer to mourn”, to ensure remembrance. Once again, Miranda falls asleep and dreams of death.
In what seems to be the following morning, Miranda is taken to the hospital without having the chance to say goodbye to Adam. At the hospital, Miranda is steadily losing her grasp on reality, and we are thrown into her nightmarish consciousness, while nurses and doctors rush past her and people keep dying all around.
The reality of war merges into feverish nightmare. In her illness-induced confusion, Miranda runs into a “promised land“, then feels “without warning a vague tremor of apprehension, some small flick of distrust in her joy.” She realizes that she has “left something unfinished,” that “somebody is missing,” that she has left something or someone behind and reluctantly realizes that she must go back – to life. Returning to the world of the living, she awakens to the sound of loud horns, shrill whistles and people shouting outside her hospital room window. Miranda has awakened to the sounds of the Armistice.
Shortly after the war has ended, after what seems to have been more than a month of battling influenza, Miranda seems to emerge from her delirious near-death experience. Gradually, she recovers, and receives a letter from a soldier in Adam’s camp.
In your introduction to Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941) you wrote: “Let me admit a deeply personal preference for this particular kind of story, where external act and the internal voiceless life of the human imagination almost meet and mingle on the mysterious threshold between dream and waking, one reality refusing to admit or confirm the existence of the other, yet both conspiring toward the same end.”
That’s precisely the atmosphere we get from your novella: a mix between Miranda’s waking life and her partly sleeping, partly delirious inner reality – as if she were sleepwalking through war and death, unable to fully grasp their reality, but all the same trapped in it; as if truth could only be revealed to her in dreams. “This is what we have, Adam and I, this is all we’re going to get, this is the way it is with us. She wanted to say, “Adam, come out of your dream and listen to me. I have pains in my chest and my head and my heart and they’re real. I am in pain all over, and you are in such danger as I can’t bear to think about, and why can we not save each other?”
Miranda has survived a near-death experience and has come back to the world of the living, to become the “one singer to mourn”, the one who tells the story. Miranda goes forth into this new world which exists both inside and outside her, a place where “now there would be time for everything.” She is once again a living being: that is, a creature made of time.
“Adam,” she said, “the worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet. . . as if they had pulled down the shutters over their minds and their hearts and were peering out at you, ready to leap if you make one gesture or say one word they do not understand instantly. It frightens me; I live in fear too, and no one should have to live in fear. It’s the skulking about, and the lying. It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two—what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body.”- Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider
“I wonder,” said Miranda. “How did you manage to get an extension of leave?” “They just gave it,” said Adam, “for no reason. The men are dying like flies out there, anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat.” “It seems to be a plague,” said Miranda, “something out of the Middle Ages. Did you ever see so many funerals, ever?”– Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider
“Miranda, buttoning her jacket, stepped into the moving crowd, thinking, What did I ever know about them? There must be a great many of them here who think as I do, and we dare not say a word to each other of our desperation, we are speechless animals letting ourselves be destroyed, and why? Does anybody here believe the things we say to each other?– Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider
“Something was done and settled between them, at least; it was enviable, enviable, that they could sit quietly together and have the same expression on their faces while they looked into the hell they shared, no matter what kind of hell, it was theirs, they were together.– Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider