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Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West Paperback – May 5, 1992
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"The men as they rode turned black in the sun from the blood on their clothes and their faces and then paled slowly in the rising dust until they assumed once more the color of the land through which they passed." If what we call "horror" can be seen as including any literature that has dark, horrific subject matter, then Blood Meridian is, in this reviewer's estimation, the best horror novel ever written. It's a perverse, picaresque Western about bounty hunters for Indian scalps near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s--a ragged caravan of indiscriminate killers led by an unforgettable human monster called "The Judge." Imagine the imagery of Sam Peckinpah and Heironymus Bosch as written by William Faulkner, and you'll have just an inkling of this novel's power. From the opening scenes about a 14-year-old Tennessee boy who joins the band of hunters to the extraordinary, mythic ending, this is an American classic about extreme violence.
"McCarthy is a writer to be read, to be admired, and quite honestly—envied."
"McCarthy is a born narrator, and his writing has, line by line, the stab of actuality. He is here to stay."
—Robert Penn Warren
From the Hardcover edition.
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I can tell you that I don't like his stuff for the same reasons as anyone else. I'm not going to sit and read it for the same reason I would read a non-fiction narrative or something. Life is short and you can't always devote hours of your time slogging through such a vivid record of one characters life, only to find no meaning at the end. But sometimes I want to, and I have to applaud McCarthy on being one of the only people who can open that door in the world of literature.
I think that same quote also applies to the novel's unforgettable antagonist, the Judge. Everything about the Judge gives me nightmares, from his giant, hairless form, to his egregious acts of cruelty, to his philosophical musings. The moments in which he is gentle and civilized are, ironically, the most disturbing of all. He's a character of Kurtzian proportions, with a dash of Iago thrown in, and maybe a little bit of the "sandman" described in that awful Metallica song. He's the embodiment of evil, and yet there is a certain lucidity and consistency in his thinking, assuming his view of the universe is correct. That's what makes him so downright terrifying.
Besides giving the reader some interesting philosophical content to chew on, the novel is really rich in biblical allusion - something that will certainly intrigue the Christian reader. (That is, if he or she can get past the violence, which, in my view, is not as gratuitous as many people say - McCarthy does spare his readers a great deal of gruesome details and leaves many unspeakable things unsaid; often the horror is merely suggested, making it all the more horrifying). Much of the content in Blood Meridian is very much reminiscent of the imagery and rhetoric of Old Testament historical narratives. I'm not sure if McCarthy is making a direct allusion here, but a description of the Babylonians from the book of Habakkuk bears an uncanny resemblance to Glanton's group of warring scalphunters:
"[They] march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!" (1:5-11)
Even the Judge's language sounds as though it were inspired by Old Testament descriptions like these. In one of the most memorable scenes involving the Judge, he says to his fellow scalphunters, "War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god" (261). What will surely trouble the Christian reader even more, however, is the absence of any Habakkuk who will stand in the midst of violence and despair and say, "I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer's; he makes me tread on my high places" (3:18-19). The closest we get to this in Blood Meridian is the expriest, Tobin. In fact, there is a highly symbolic scene toward the end of Blood Meridian in which the novel's protagonist, the kid, happens upon a group of dead people who had tried to take refuge around a fallen cross, onto which was tied a straw crucifix. The book is hardly subtle in communicating the idea that the universe is a cold and indifferent place, a place where "might makes right" and where the man who comes to terms with this is god. Like the Judge says, "The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone" (344). Yet, while I disagree with these messages, there is a certain kind of intellectual respect that I have for this novel. The only thing more terrifying than reading this novel as a theist is reading it as an atheist. If the latter view is true, McCarthy hits on some terrible truths about human nature. Again, his intelligence is clear but his soul is mad.
Blood Meridian is a deeply disturbing novel. In it, McCarthy plunges the depths of the human heart in all its potential and fully realized depravity. After just one reading, I feel unable to assimilate all my thoughts into a coherent response to what I've just read. I feel like some Jane Austen would serve me well now, as a palliative against all the scalphunting, gore and...worse. Yet, there's just a certain gravity and weight to this novel that makes it unforgettable, and truly a masterpiece.