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OK Corral relocated to Mississippi
on 22 August 2003
PALE HORSE COMING is inspired by the New Testament verse:
"Behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." Author Stephen Hunter must have thought the passage way cool because he milks it for all it's worth.
Earl Swagger, the novel's hero, is a sergeant in the Arkansas state police and a Marine veteran of the Pacific war against the Japanese. It's now 1961, and Earl takes time off from his day job to investigate the disappearance of a lawyer pal who's traveled on legal business to the Thebes State Penal Farm (Colored), a Mississippi prison for Negroes cut-off from the rest of the world in the swamps of the state's southeast corner. What Swagger discovers is a hell-hole of officially sanctioned viciousness that makes Stalin's gulags seem tame by comparison. As a meddling outsider, Earl is detained there himself and almost loses his life and sanity. After finally escaping, he returns to exact righteous vengeance.
The first half of PALE HORSE COMING is perhaps its best. It's the survival story of Earl amidst the horrors of Thebes, not the least of which is the psychopathic overseer, the albino Bigboy, who enjoys torturing prisoners to death with a bullwhip. To enhance the dramatic effect of Swagger's fight for his life, the Thebes facility is perhaps overembellished. Wrought in iron over its main gate are the words, "Work Will Set You Free." Haven't we seen that before, as in "Arbeit Macht Frei", associated with other camps of infamy? Somehow.
The book's second half strains credulity. The author apparently has a love of the Old West as he has Earl returning to Thebes with a posse of retired gunslingers - one of whom is in his eighties - to expunge the place from the map. Swagger includes in his trigger-happy band a character named Audie Ryan, America's most decorated WWII soldier and now a movie star, who's obviously modeled on the real-life Audie Murphy. Oh, puhleeze! And it doesn't help that the U.S. government is involved with Thebes in the obligatory Sinister Secret Project - your tax dollars at work.
Had I thought that Hunter wrote the ending tongue-in-cheek as a parody, I might have been more forgiving. However, I suspect he was serious, and the result is too clever by half. As it is, I'm awarding four stars because it remains a gripping and entertaining read. And that's why I spend good money for a cheap thriller, right?
In the film PALE RIDER, which reworks the earlier SHANE with a stronger "Death rides a pale horse" theme, Clint Eastwood's Man-With-No-Name character wipes out the Bad Guys all by himself. For me, the Lone Hero has always held more appeal.