Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter


"Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is the name of the collection of three novellas as well as the name of the third one. The phrase, from the Book of Revelation (King James version) is "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given to them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."

When the Lamb (that is, Christ) sees a pale horse with death as the rider, he is foreseeing the time when pestilence, terror, and death  overcome the world. Over the centuries the end times captured with such imagination in the Book of Revelation has been seen in the distance many times. We all know to beware the four horsemen of the apocalypse and that pale horse and rider. (For more, see what I wrote about Elaine Pagels' book.)

Miranda has a close encounter with the pale horse and rider at the end of the Great War when she nearly dies in the influenza epidemic. When the story begins she is worrying how she will afford a $50 war bond, is spending time with a soldier who expects to leave for the front at any moment, and is thinking about her — and others — unwillingness to speak the truth about the war. Her "aliveness" is so beautifully stated here:

Strolling, keeping step, his stout polished well-made boots setting themselves down firmly beside her thin-soled black suede, they put off as long as they could the end of their moment together, and kept up as well as they could their small talk that flew back and forth over the little grooves, warn in the thin upper surface of the brain, things you could say and hear clink reassuringly at once without disturbing the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty-four years old each, alive and on the earth at the same moment….

Later she and Adam try to remember the words of an old spiritual they had both heard, "Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away." 

Then suddenly she is in the hospital where there is no bed available as so many are dying from the epidemic. She sees two men on the other side of a sheet taking away a third man who has died.

Wordless and white they vanished down the corridor, pushing the wheeled bed before them. It had been an entrancing and leisurely spectacle, but now it was over. A pallid white fog rose in their wake insinuatingly and floated before Miranda's eyes, a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and twisted backs and broken feet of abused, outraged living things, all the shapes of their confused pain and their estranged hearts; the fog that might part at any moment and loose the horde of human torments.

She does recover from the illness and tentatively begins to live again.

The first novella "Old Mortality" introduces us to Miranda's extended Southern family when she is ten, then later when she is a young woman. The focus is the beautiful Amy who dies shortly after marrying Gabriel, a man she does not love. The gathering when Miranda has grown is occasioned by Gabriel's death. "Noon Wine" is set on a Texas ranch and made me think of Edgar Allan Poe.

The author is best known for Ship of Fools which I remember, along with the movie with Vivian Leigh and Simon Signoret.

 Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1939, 208 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.



  • In the preface to “The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter,” Katherine called the word “novella” a “slack, boneless, affected word that we do not need to describe anything”! She said “Please call my works by their right names: short stories, long stories, short novels, novels.” Picky, picky, picky, she is!

  • I’m not sure why she got so worked up about the word novella. It seems better to have a word that signifies something about the form rather than deciding between “long story” or “short novel.”


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