In her novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter relates through a thinly-veiled autobiographical tale the story of influenza pandemic that spread across much of the world during the latter years of World War I (then called “The Great War”). Her setting, Denver, Colorado, was an apt choice for this story of a young woman’s struggle to survive that pandemic during a time when tens of millions did not, while also reflecting the autobiographical nature of the work. Porter’s story was inspired by her own experience as a reporter in Denver during the years detailed in her novella. The choice of a setting, then, was relatively easy. She was there when the United States entered and fought in the war in Europe, and it was there that she contracted the disease that almost killed her. There are two more elements to the story, though, that make its setting particularly appropriate. First, as with many rural regions across the United States, the U.S. Army had constructed military bases in Colorado that were to support the war effort in Europe. The presence of a large number of soldiers there, then, was natural. The other element, however, is a little more spiritual, and this, also, is no accident. Colorado during the early part of the 20th Century represented the “Old West” more than it did any more cosmopolitan center on either coast, or in burgeoning Chicago, the capital of the West. When Porter was constructing her novellas that collectively became the volume titled Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the third novella of which is the story at hand, the rugged, rural environment that was Colorado in reality served to heighten the ‘otherworldliness’ of her experiences there, and that spiritual element is reflected both in the story’s tone and in its title. The Biblical Book of Revelation, of course, includes the passage “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him” [6:8; King James version]. To those experiencing the influenza pandemic of 1917-1918, it did, to many, appear as though Biblical prophesies were materializing.
This spiritual component to Porter’s story is a prominent theme, converging as it does with the hallucinatory experiences that often accompany serious illnesses. The “Old West” setting of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, then fits into that motif quite well. Miranda, the story’s protagonist modeled very closely on the author, experiences those hallucinations, which incorporate the romantic relationship she had developed with a young Army officer, Adam in the story. In the following passage, that convergence of themes is presented in one of Miranda’s hallucinatory dream-like experiences involving Adam and the “Old West” setting:
“Almost with no warning at all, she floated into the darkness, holding his hand, in sleep that was not sleep but clear evening light in a small green wood, and angry dangerous wood filled with inhuman concealed voiced singing sharply like the whine of arrows and she saw Adam transfixed by a flight of these singing arrows that struck him in the heart and passed shrilly cutting their pass through the leaves.”
Adam, of course, will die of influenza, while Miranda/Katherine will survive. Porter’s use of Colorado for the setting, besides conforming to the autobiographical nature of the story, is central to the themes she incorporated, and lends Pale Horse, Pale Rider an added element of spirituality that better reflects the surrealistic experience of surviving that deadly disease during a time and in a place when survival was anything but a given.