“Death always leaves one singer to mourn.”
Not too long ago I finished reading the collected short stories of Jean Stafford and decided that, since it was a collection of smaller works, I’d write mini-reviews of each smaller work. I was pretty successful with that, I think – it helped me process the stories a bit better, instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of them, like I was by John Cheever’s collection. So I’m applying that same approach to today’s review of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this collection in 1966.
This anthology collects three short story collections that were previously published and includes four additional stories that were previously unpublished; it’s a comprehensive compendium of her short stories and, though she is more well-known for her novel, Ship of Fools, it is her short stories which reveal more about her and showcase her talents more.
II. “PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER”
The second collection of stories in this anthology is a short affair, clocking in around 150 pages and only comprising of three novellas. Albeit short, I think this is where Porter really hits her stride as an author; while a good many of the stories in “The Flowing Judas” made an impression on me, all three of the stories in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” absolutely devastated me—particularly the titular story that concludes the collection.
Porter really stretches herself over these three stories, exploring a common theme from different angles (“Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” all deal with death, chiefly), putting her writing abilities to the test, and even getting really experimental at times. All the while, although there are moments that drag on a bit, she really gets down to the heart of the stories and makes huge emotional impacts.
In “Old Mortality,” death is a shadow that stretches beyond the grave and keeps generations in the shade. Life is transformed and legacy is established by death—it reshapes those it has taken, makes them more than themselves, makes them grand symbols of what has been and what could never be; in “Noon Wine” death is a sudden, devastating event that is irreversible and has consequences that affects far more than those directly involved; in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” the titular story, death is a long, slow, agonizing process; it is not something that comes on suddenly, rather it is our partner that rides alongside us over the course of our entire lives. It is not something to escape—it is our partner and our guide.
More than that, though, the “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” story is about as close to perfection as one could hope to get. It is utterly heartbreaking, full of despair, harrowing, and gut-wrenching. It’s a story that grabs you, pulls you into this nightmare world (an apocalyptic, stream-of-consciousness fever dream during the World War I flu epidemic), and refuses to let you go.