Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book review

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

~~Revelation 6:8

I read Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter today. Wow. That has to be one of the most chilling and tragic tales I've read in some time. (If you have any desire to read it, you should skip this entry, because it's a synopsis of the whole thing.)

It's 1918, and Miranda is a young lady working as a newspaper reporter. As the story opens, she is having a bad dream, which turns out to be foreshadowing. In the dream, she is riding a horse, and she is accompanied by another rider on a gray horse.

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 meets a young soldier named Adam, and during the course of his leave they become close and begin to fall in love. The influenza outbreak is alluded to early on, but it is not dwelt on; the bigger issue of the story is the War, and Miranda and Adam's knowledge that he will soon be shipped out. This novella is as much an anti-war treatise as a tale of the influenza pandemic. Adam feels it is his duty, and has no qualms about going; Miranda is sick of the war. After attending a play and being subjected to another "Buy War Bonds" lecture, they leave the theater and discuss the lecture and the man who gave it.

"Just another nasty old man who would like to see the young ones killed," said Miranda in a low voice; "the tomcats try to eat the little tomkittens, you know. They don't fool you really, do they, Adam?"

Adam brushes it off, but Miranda continues:

"Adam, the worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you 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."

As they continue to grow closer, Miranda begins to feel the symptoms of influenza. Her landlady threatens to throw her out, telling Adam that "it's a plague, a plague, my God, and I've got a houseful of people to think about!" Adam assures her that he will take care of Miranda, and to keep out. He tells Miranda that the landlady can't throw her out, and when Miranda asks if it's really that bad, Adam says:

"It's as bad as anything can be...all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night..."

While Adam is out to get more supplies, a doctor comes at the request of Miranda's boss at the paper, and she is taken to the hospital, where they eventually find a bed for her. Adam tries to see her, but they don't allow him into her room. As she descends into near death, her hallucinations and fever dreams become increasingly real, but she eventually begins to fight off the infection. As she begins to regain her senses, she realizes that she has narrowly escaped death, and feels that she doesn't quite belong in the world of the living. She finds out that while she was struggling for life, the war had ended. As she begins to look through the letters that accumulated during her hospital stay, she comes across a letter from a soldier at the base where Adam was stationed. He writes to her that Adam asked him to let her know if anything happened to him, and goes on to write that Adam perished of influenza in the camp hospital, over a month before.

I found this tragic on two levels: not only was Adam taken from her, after he'd tried to save her, but while he was so stoic about going off to war, he was felled by a virus before he got near the battlefield. As Miranda leaves the hospital, the book concludes:

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.

Bleak, yes. But some damn fine writing.


  1. I put this one on my wish list to read at some point so I didnt' 'read on'. Have you read Joe Hill's "The Heart Shaped Box" yet. Remember I told you he is Stephen King's son? I think he now has another book out too (not sure). But if you like the King books you will like his son's work as well.
    Hugs, Joyce

  2. Tragic ending.

    If you are going to rate books, I recommend a rating system, such as 1 Kleenex, 2 Kleenex, 132 Kleenex :o)

  3. I don't think it's my type of book, but you're a very good reviewer!

  4. An excellent review of what sounds to be an excellent read as well. I think I would like this book.

  5. I couldn't resist reading your review even though I haven't read the book. YOu make me want to read it and I'm going to look for it when I go to the library tomorrow. I agree with Ken that we need a Kleenex rating system.

  6. Hi Beth,
    Hmmm ... that plot sure is a "downer." I just finished reading another "downer," a friend in Amsterdam gave me a book called "Love Life" by Ray Kluun (a translation from a Dutch original). It's about a young couple who discover that the wife is dying of cancer. Am now on the prowl for something uplifting (i.e. will take a pass on Pale Horse, Pale Rider ...)

  7. Beth:

    Sounds like a Great read, and I will try to read it before the year is up. This time period has always interested me. Well MJ is calling my name, please have a Great day today!
    Stay warm and safe in the white stuff! :)


  8. Sounds like a good read. I like Ken's rating could use it for movies too.
    Thanks for being there (again) last night when I IM'd you ! I was pretty excited and had to share. Your so sweet to give me your time when I need it.
    Thanks again.
    Big hugs.

  9. I skipped the review.....but will add it to my list, the never ending list of reads....Currently reading Blood & Gold, by Anne Rice. (Maybe it's Gold & Blood....)


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