Pale Horse, Pale Rider

by Katherine Anne Porter

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a trio of short novels published by the writer Katherine Anne Porter in 1939.

The titles of those three short novels are Old Mortality, Noon Wine, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Here, we will briefly summarize each of these.

Let us begin with the title story, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. This short novel, set in Denver during World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918, is based loosely on Porter's own life story and centers around themes of death, mortality, and young love. The narrative tells the story of a youthful couple: Miranda, a journalist, and Adam, a soldier. Adam is awaiting orders to go to fight in the war, and both characters are anxious. Then, Miranda contracts influenza. Adam takes care of her at first, but she's transferred to a hospital. She falls into a state of unconsciousness there. When Miranda wakes, she learns that Adam has also contracted the disease——and that he has died. Despite her misery, Miranda's friends coax her back into the world of the living.

Noon Wine and Old Mortality are the other two novellas.

The former is set on a Texan dairy farm in the 1890s. The story centers around Royal Earle Thompson, the farmer, and Olaf Helton, a Swedish farm hand whom Thompson employs. One day, a stranger named Homer T. Hatch shows up at the farm, claiming that Helton is a dangerous criminal and a former mental hospital patient who must return to the institution. There's a conflict and Thompson kills Hatch. Thompson is put on trial, and though he's acquitted (his actions are judged as self-defense), he is never able to recover from the trauma of having murdered a man, nor his feeling that his wife and sons now fear him. The story ends with Thompson killing himself with a shotgun.

Old Mortality traces the life of its protagonist, Miranda, from childhood through adolescence and young adulthood. The story starts when she's eight and ends when she's eighteen. As a child, Miranda is obsessed with the idea of her late Aunt Amy, who looks so beautiful in the photos from her wedding day: Miranda wants to be like Amy, both in terms of beauty and horsemanship. Through old letters and stories told by family members, Miranda pieces together the life that her aunt led and thinks about mortality and death.

A few years later, Miranda meets Amy's onetime husband, Gabriel, who's since remarried, and she is surprised to see his sloppy appearance and apparent discontent with his life.

Eight years after that, Miranda learns that Gabriel has died (it's implied that he drank himself to death). She's on a train ride home when she receives this information, delivered by a gruff old lady, Cousin Eva, who's on her way to Gabriel's funeral. Eva talks to Miranda about how Gabriel never recovered from Amy's death.

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