Counterintuitive as it may sound, people fearing the coronavirus are buying up copies of Albert Camus’ The Plague, Stephen King’s The Stand, and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness. If you’re one of those who finds consuming pandemic stories to be palliative for your anxiety, I recommend the addition of one of the only pieces of American fiction about the 1918–19 flu pandemic that was written by a survivor: Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. This short novel, published in 1939, is a story of two doomed lovers caught up in the gears of world war and a deadly virus; somehow, it manages to be romantic and bitter, all at once.
The story is semi-autobiographical. Porter was 28 during the 1918–19 pandemic and working for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. She was dating a young soldier, who was readying for deployment overseas. When she fell sick, he nursed her at her boarding house, until her editor finally pulled strings to get her admitted to a hospital. That hospital was so overcrowded that Porter was left on a gurney in a hallway for nine days, running a fever of 105. When she recovered, she found out that the soldier had died of the flu. Pale Horse, Pale Rider gives the bones of this experience to its protagonist, Miranda Gay.
Miranda bristles at jingoistic homefront culture, which Porter depicts as a mind virus that rivals the flu. A couple of unctuous war bond salesmen try to guilt Miranda into purchasing a bond she cannot afford; she and the other female reporter at her paper worry that they will lose their jobs if they can’t scrape together the money to buy one. The novel shows how the expectation of support for the war colors everyone’s daily interactions. Miranda describes how everyone reacts in a particular way when they hear the words “the war”: “It was habitual, automatic, to give that solemn, mystically uplifted grin when you spoke the words or heard them spoken.”
The war and the flu mingle together as threats to a good thing that’s happening in Miranda’s life. In this fictionalization of Porter’s experience, the soldier Miranda is in love with is named Adam, and he’s from Texas. They’ve been dating about 10 days, but they both feel like this is something real. They’ve spent those 10 days in the frenzy of early romance: dancing to jazz, going to see plays she needs to write about for the paper, poking around geological museums, skipping out of town to take hikes. They both know that their mutual affection will be short-lived, since he’ll be going to France soon. What they don’t know is that it will be the virus that gets them first.
While Miranda admits to herself how much she would love him if he weren’t bound for the war, between them, they keep everything light by policy; the flu is no exception. “It seems to be a plague, something out of the Middle Ages,” Miranda says to Adam, who is about to be sent back to training, about the sickness. “Did you ever see so many funerals, ever?” “Never did,” he replies. “Well, let’s be strong minded and not have any of it. I’ve got four days more straight from the blue and not a blade of grass must grow under our feet.” With that, they make plans to go dancing.
Slowly, the flu makes its presence known in her body, even as her mind continues to dwell on the war. On the night she collapses from the sickness she’s been feeling inklings of for days, Adam and Miranda go to a play together, so she can review it. It’s a boring play, but before the third act, a fundraiser comes onstage to implore people to buy war bonds. It’s this endless speech, which hits all the patriotic high notes, that catalyzes Miranda’s illness, making her head ache and spin.
At a restaurant after the play, she passes out; when she comes to, Adam is nursing her in her boardinghouse room. That’s the last time she has with him. After she’s taken to the hospital and suffers through days of pain and fever dreams, Miranda wakes up, finds out he’s dead, and feels profoundly alienated from her body and her life. “Can this be my face?” Miranda asks when she looks in the mirror after finally regaining consciousness. “Are these my own hands?” she asks a nurse, “holding them up to show the yellow tint like melted wax glimmering between the closed fingers.”
The book’s small story of one person’s tragedy reminds us that illness is a personal trauma, and a pandemic is a million personal traumas in one. Porter said of the flu pandemic in an interview in 1963: “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered.” Pale Horse, Pale Rider isn’t a book about secretly released bioweapons or an epic struggle between good and evil or a metaphor about Nazism; it’s just a story about people coming to terms with their own mortality. “The body is a curious monster, no place to live in, how could anyone feel at home there?” Miranda asks. How, indeed?
For more on the coronavirus and its impact, listen to a clip from this week’s Political Gabfest.