Review

Pale Horse Coming

by Stephen Hunter

Read an Excerpt



I was first introduced to Stephen Hunter through a comic book; I
wish I could remember which one. It was either "The Preacher" or
"Justice League of America," written, respectively, by Garth Ennis
and Grant Morrison. Either Ennis or Morrison was extolling Hunter's
virtues in a letter column, and what was said sounded interesting
that I picked up DIRTY WHITE BOYS. I can't even drive by a Denny's
without thinking of a particular passage in that book; I can recite
it from memory even though I have read it but once. And if I happen
to eat in one of those types of restaurants I never, I mean
never, sit with my back to the door. That, to my mind, is
classic writing.

You won't find Hunter in the "Classics" section of your local
library or Internet website. Hunter's subject matter is politically
incorrect and none too genteel. His protagonists, the men of the
Swagger line, are flawed but good and honorable men who fret over
appropriateness of the use of hollow tip bullets in combat
situations (inappropriate for war, but well-suited for justice) and
for whom word is equivalent to bond. But what Hunter has been
quietly doing, without fanfare and without the attention that he
richly deserves, is creating nothing less than a new American
archetype in prose writ large, with a sense of boldness and majesty
all its own.

PALE HORSE COMING picks up where last year's HOT SPRINGS left of,
with Earl Swagger returned to duty with the Arkansas Highway
Patrol. Sam Vincent, Swagger's friend and mentor and former
prosecuting attorney of Polk County Arkansas, is approached with a
proposition by a Chicago lawyer. Vincent is asked to investigate a
prison for violent black convicts, rumored to exist in all but
unreachable Thebes, Mississippi. Vincent, low on clients and cash,
accepts the assignment, but not before telling Swagger where he is
going. When Vincent fails to return, Swagger, bound in equal parts
by promise and friendship, goes in search of him and finds a horror
beyond anything he might have imagined. The entire town is guarded
by a gang of thugs who use fear and violence as the means to
control their charges. Swagger finds Vincent and frees him but
loses his own liberty in the process. Swagger vows to return to set
things right and to destroy the horror that he has witnessed. But
he can't do it alone.

PALE HORSE COMING is one of those rarities, a novel of almost 500
pages that is too short by half. Hunter is the consummate stylist
--- his description, near the beginning of the tale, of how Vincent
became a "former" prosecuting attorney takes but a paragraph and
yet is as wholly unforgettable as anything I've read this year ---
yet his story never, ever gets lost within his words. His ear for
dialogue matches that possessed by Faulkner; he is able to remain
true to the time of which he writes but he never sounds artificial
or stilted. And the violence, while gritty and uncompromising, is
never gratuitous.

If you've never read one of Stephen Hunter's works, try PALE HORSE
COMING for 50 pages. You'll read on, swept up by the grandeur of
his storytelling, no matter how you might find portions of the
subject matter. If you are offended by violence, you might want to
stop reading within the last 100 pages or so of the book; my guess,
however, is that you will be compelled to keep going, however
gruesome you might find Hunter's descriptions. We are born in
blood, and so, for some of us, that is how we go. Hunter does not
linger on this, but neither does he look away. And, in the end,
neither will you.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Pale Horse Coming
by Stephen Hunter

  • Publication Date: December 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Pocket
  • ISBN-10: 0671035460
  • ISBN-13: 9780671035464