Pale Horse, Pale Rider–in 1918 and Now

Gustave Doré, Death on a Pale Horse


Reader William McKeachie has alerted me to a Katharine Anne Porter novella about the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in America. Reading Pale Horse, Pale Rider, I got a glimpse of what we Americans may be facing very soon.

Protagonist Miranda is a city reporter in the waning days of World War I who begins dating Adam, a soldier about to depart for the front. They both assume he will die there, which makes their few days together particularly precious.

She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death.

One doesn’t have to go to the front to encounter death, however.  Adam’s leave has been extended because the flu has broken out on his army base, and Adam and Miranda see evidence of the outbreak as they walk through New York and witness one funeral procession after another. With the same bravado that he talks about his upcoming war service, Adam discusses the flu:

“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?”

“Never did. Well, let’s be strong minded and not have any of it. I’ve got four days more straight from the blue and not a blade of grass must grow under our feet.

It so happens that Miranda has the flu, but she refuses to admit it to herself or Adam, wanting to make the most of their remaining time.

“There’s something terribly wrong,” she told Adam. “I feel too rotten. It can’t just be the weather, and the war.”

“The weather is perfect,” said Adam, “and the war is simply too good to be true. But since when? You were all right yesterday.”

“I don’t know,” she said slowly, her voice sounding small and thin. They stopped as always at the open door before the flight of littered steps leading up to the newspaper loft. Miranda listened for a moment to the rattle of typewriters above, the steady rumble of presses below.

“I wish we were going to spend the whole afternoon on a park bench,” she said, “or drive to the mountains.”

When she collapses, Adam nurses her all that he can. In a situation that may be our future as well, she must stay in her apartment (much to the concern of her landlady) because all the hospitals are full.

“Adam,” she said, “I’ve just thought of something. Maybe they forgot St. Luke’s Hospital. Call the sisters there and ask them not to be so selfish with their silly old rooms. Tell them I only want a very small dark ugly one for three days, or less. Do try them, Adam.”

He believed, apparently, that she was still more or less in her right mind, for she heard him at the telephone explaining in his deliberate voice. He was back again almost at once, saying, “This seems to be my day for getting mixed up with peevish old maids. The sister said that even if they had a room you couldn’t have it without doctor’s orders. But they didn’t have one, anyway. She was pretty sour about it.”

“Well,” said Miranda in a thick voice, “I think that’s abominably rude and mean, don’t you?” She sat up with a wide gesture of both arms, and began to retch again, violently.

Miranda miraculously survives after being given up for dead and is conscious enough to hear Armistice celebrations outside her window. Adam, however, has himself contracted the flu and is not so fortunate. The dying does not end with the war.

More than the plot and the setting, I was pulled in by the novella’s hallucinatory atmosphere, which captures my own sense of dread. The story opens with a haunting dream of trying to outride death:

Come now, Graylie [her horse], she said, taking his bridle, we must outrun Death and the Devil. You are no good for it, she told the other horses standing saddled before the stable gate, among them the horse of the stranger, gray also, with tarnished nose and ears. The stranger swung into his saddle beside her, leaned far towards her and regarded her without meaning, the blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time. She drew Graylie around sharply, urged him to run. He leaped the low rose hedge and the narrow ditch beyond, and the dust of the lane flew heavily under his beating hoofs. The stranger rode beside her, easily, lightly, his reins loose in his half-closed hand, straight and elegant in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones; his pale face smiled in an evil trance, he did not glance at her. Ah, I have seen this fellow before, I know this man if I could place him. He is no stranger to me.

She pulled Graylie up, rose in her stirrups and shouted, I’m not going with you this time— ride on! Without pausing or turning his head the stranger rode on. Gray lie’s ribs heaved under her, her own ribs rose and fell. Oh, why am I so tired, I must wake up.

If one imagines the dream accompanied by the negro spiritual mentioned later in the novella—“Pale horse, pale rider, done take my lover away”—it becomes even darker.

Equally nightmarish is Porter’s description of Miranda’s descent to the edge of death. How many will experience something like what the author describes?

The road to death is a long march beset with all evils, and the heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up its own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster, nor the sight of crimes committed there.

In Miranda’s case, however, the “stubborn will to live” also asserts itself and in the end triumphs. It occurs when she surrenders to her fate:

Death is death, said Miranda, and for the dead it has no attributes. Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay.

Miranda goes on to witness unparalleled beauty,  

a deep clear landscape of sea and sand, of soft meadow and sky, freshly washed and glistening with transparencies of blue. Why, of course, of course, said Miranda, without surprise but with serene rapture as if some promise made to her had been kept long after she had ceased to hope for it.


With “an amazement of joy” she sees “faces transfigured” of all the people she has known that are still alive, “each in its own beauty, beyond what she remembered of them, their eyes were clear and untroubled as good weather, and they cast no shadows.”

But because she does not see Adam among the living—instinctively she must know that he is dead—she is then plunged into despair:

A thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they? At once as if a curtain had fallen, the bright landscape faded, she was alone in a strange stony place of bitter cold, picking her way along a steep path of slippery snow, calling out. Oh, I must go back! But in what direction? Pain returned, a terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire, the stench of corruption filled her nostrils, the sweetish sickening smell of rotting flesh and pus; she opened her eyes and saw pale light through a coarse white cloth over her face, knew that the smell of death was in her own body, and struggled to lift her hand.

America, like those other countries with our transmission rate (China, Italy, Spain), will be experiencing such highs and lows in the coming weeks and months. Then, at some point, the world will develop herd immunity and vaccines, and we will be facing the future that Miranda faces in the novella’s concluding paragraph:

No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.

Right now we must focus on our grim present. Looking ahead will come later.

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