When I was a child, I remember reading a story about a single soldier who executed several thousand of prisoners of war using only a service-issued pistol. Every night for a month he would don his military cap and leather gloves and a leather butcher's apron and lead the prisoners one after another into an antechamber draped in the crimson of the Rodina and tell them why they were to be killed and then shoot them in the head. At night he would share vodka with his men and the next day it would begin again. Over ten hours a day he worked over a period of four weeks, at the incredible rate of one execution every three minutes. At the end of his own personal holocaust he would have some seven thousand souls to his credit.
I am told that he died years later, insane and in utter wretchedness. What right man would have it any other way?
Cormac McCarthy is a difficult writer to pin down. His works deal with the grisly and the grotesque, and although it is unfair to label McCarthy as a pessimist or a misanthrope, his books can hardly be considered an argument for optimism. The characters haunting his books are the violent, the dispossessed, and the desperate - men thrown into situations of extreme violence and deprivation faced with horrifying scenes of murder, infanticide, necrophilia, psychopaths, irate wildlife, and a God that can only be understood after journeying through universes of pain and suffering. On the whole, not the most comfortable material to read.
One small part of it, however, is an unadulterated masterpiece. When Blood Meridian was first published in 1985, it was not unnoticed, it is true, but it was not necessarily understood; some thought it an interesting, but minor, failure. Fifteen years later, McCarthy's stock had risen considerably. Nearly another fifteen years later, the change in the book's reputation is greater still; it is now hailed as one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, and as one of the finest pieces of fiction written by a currently living author. After having read my way through his entire oeuvre, I cannot help but see the books from the beginning of his career as forming a sort of prelude, in which he tested and experimented and honed his craft; and in everything he wrote after its publication, he never quite sounded that magical, eerie note again. It is the apex of his career; Blood Meridian is his reception piece.
Before starting the book, however, there are a few points to keep in mind. First, it is not merely a brutal geek show where McCarthy is daring the reader to look away. (Although, if it were, it would surely outrank all others.) Second, it is not simply a book about the West, a piece of interesting historical fiction based on the scalphunting operation of the real-life Glanton gang; it is, rather, an investigation into McCarthy's central obsession - the nature of violence and death - and he is exploiting material he has studied intimately. Just as Conrad's works are not, expect superficially, mere sea-stories, so this is not just a Western, but an uncompromising exploration into the darker regions of the soul.
Third, there is a very real possibility, even for the most jaded, that you will not finish the book on the first try; and afterward, you may decide not to return to it. With Blood Meridian, even some of our finest critics have had false starts.
Even knowing all of this, Blood Meridian is tough going. McCarthy's style is paradoxically both sparse and dense; and his odd punctuation, lack of quotation marks, technically detailed language, and pockets of untranslated Spanish can be difficult to adjust oneself to. Finally, there is the issue of the violence itself, which is extremely - some would say virtuosically - graphic. Random killings, decapitations, dismemberments, scalpings, bizarre tortures, spectacular scenes of mass infanticide, crucifixions, immolations, flamboyant acts of sadism, and wholesale slaughters of humans and animals alike are only the beginning of what the book has to offer on its grisly bill of fare, building in a vicious crescendo to the final, unnameable atrocity. It is well for the reader to know this. To read Blood Meridian is to descend into an inferno.
A passage from the scalphunters' slaughter of the Gileños both highlights the cold precision of McCarthy's prose and the horror suffused throughout the whole novel:
Within that first minute the slaughter had become general. Women were screaming and naked children and one old man tottered forth waving a pair of white pantaloons. The horsemen moved among then and slew them with clubs or knives. A hundred tethered dogs were howling and others were racing crazed among the huts ripping at one another and at the tied dogs nor would this bedlam and clamor cease or diminish from the first moment the riders entered the village. Already a number of the huts were afire and a whole enfilade of refugees had begun streaming north along the shore wailing crazily with the riders among them like herdsmen clubbing down the laggards first.
When Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the village people were running out under the horses' hooves and the horses were plunging and some of the men were moving on foot among the huts with torches and dragging the victims out, slathered and dripping with blood, hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy. There were in the camp a number of Mexican slaves and these ran forth calling out in spanish and were brained or shot and one of the Delawares emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of midden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew and humans on fire came shrieking forth like berserkers and the riders hacked them down with their enormous knives and a young woman ran up and embraced the bloodied forefeet of Glanton's warhorse.
McCarthy allows us to witness this nightmarish world through a character known only as the kid. We never know his name, we know virtually nothing about him, and we know little about what he thinks. Furthermore, there are long stretches of the book where he disappears completely from view; all we know is that he is young, desperate, and that within him "...broods a taste for mindless violence." He is less an actual person than an avatar for the reader - a representation of our race's dark, powerful, deep-seated fascination with violence that, for better or for worse, can be managed and suppressed but never entirely rooted out of our souls; that troubled, darkened corner of our psyche which always finds some part of itself both appalled and enticed by the carnage of the battlefield, both horrified and inflamed by the screams of the tortured victim.
This same mindless incitement to violence is embodied in the Glanton gang as a whole, a grim reflection of the more sordid aspects of the human condition. Nearly always caked with the dried gore of their enemies and adorned with grisly trophies hacked or cut away from the corpses of their victims, the scalphunters are described in words mythological; they are "ogres," a "heliotropic plague spreading westward," and more than once they are referred to as "argonauts." They carry shotguns and revolvers with bores big enough to stick ones thumbs in, and wield Bowie knives as big as claymores; one of their Indian enemies, flamboyantly attired, is described as a "wild thaumaturge out of an atavistic drama." Thus the feeling that they are not really representing themselves - actual individuals from an actual scalphunting operation that massacred their way across the plains and deserts of western Mexico - but rather timeless embodiments of the violence and warfare weaved throughout the history of our species.
The Gang's gradual descent into madness leads to murdering out of sheer compulsion, as illustrated in one self-contained paragraph which, bookended by larger, more complex scenes, appears to be a throwaway - but upon closer inspection becomes one of the most chilling:
The next town they entered was two days deeper into the sierras. They never knew what it was called. A collection of mud huts pitched on the naked plateau. As they rode in the people ran before them like harried game. Their cries to one another or perhaps the visible frailty of them seemed to incite something in Glanton...He nudged forth his horse and drew his pistol and this somnolent pueblo was forthwith dragooned into a weltering shambles. Many of the people had been running toward the church where they knelt clutching the altar and from this refuge they were dragged howling one by one and one by one they were slain and scalped in the chancel floor. When the riders passed through this same village four days later the dead were still in the streets and buzzards and pigs were feeding on them. The scavengers watched in silence while the company picked their way past like supernumeraries in a dream. When the last of them was gone they commenced to feed again.
Blood Meridian echoes several other works, including Paradise Lost (compare the Judge's creation of gunpowder to that of Satan's), Moby-Dick (Toadvine contemplating whether to kill the Judge, as compared to Starbuck contemplating whether to kill Ahab), and the Bible (those acquainted with the bloodier bits of the Book of Judges and the Book of Samuel will find much here that is familiar). The allusions are calculated and deliberate; McCarthy draws upon references to books and rituals that, even if one has never directly read them or heard of them, are so thoroughly ingrained in our heritage that we cannot help but resonate to them. There is the scene of the fortune-telling around the campfire (which, if paid attention to, reveals much more about the architecture of the book than at first glance); the story within the story about the son whose father is murdered and who himself becomes a killer of men; the burning tree in the middle of the desert, struck by lightning; and, in the shortest chapter of the novel, the baptism of the lunatic, a rare but bizarre moment of tenderness whose meaning is completely lost upon the insane.
In addition to his literary references, McCarthy devotes considerable time to describing the land itself; that indifferent, often terrifying aspect of nature from which we, if we are sensitive enough, always feel ourselves somehow estranged. In a way, the landscape becomes one of the book's primary characters. Everywhere and at all times are felt the dangers of unpredictable weather, of exposure, of infection or blood poisoning from an unfortunate encounter with any of the innumerable beasts hiding within the forests or crawling upon the sands of the deserts. A wrong step, a delayed reaction, can mean the difference between life and death; and given the utter isolation and desolation of the landscape, one's death is greeted not with grief or mourning, but with terrible silence:
The following evening as they rode up onto the western rim they lost one of the mules. It went skittering off down the canyon wall with the contents of the panniers exploding soundlessly in the hot dry air and it fell through sunlight and through shade, turning in that lonely void until it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever of memory in the mind of any living thing that ever was.
Counterbalancing the stark reality of the book is the Judge, an enormous, completely hairless man resembling a gigantic infant. In a novel surfeited with atrocities and depravity, the Judge stands apart. Explorer, orator, gunslinger, murderer, pedophile, childkiller, Judge Holden is a quasi-supernatural being, the horrifying spiritual emblem of the Glanton gang. Seemingly all-knowing, all-present, and nearly invincible, the Judge assumes the role of a demigod, appearing to know all tongues, all arts, all sciences, all histories, and desiring to record every thing upon the earth, living or inanimate, into his depthless logs - and then obliterate it.
More compelling than his fantastical appearance and ghoulish predilections is his oratory; as with Satan in Paradise Lost, even though we know his rhetoric is riddled with nihilism and casuistry, we want to hear the Judge speak. Our first experience of the Judge is his inciting a mob to murder a preacher, based on false accusations of sodomy and bestiality; immediately we are aware of his demonic charisma, his methods, and his association with violence. His utterances are those of a supremely intelligent maniac, in full control of his rhetorical powers but seemingly not in control of his mind, pontificating in Biblical periods and declaiming in the epic mode. His speeches throughout the novel - which, read together, form a sort of loose progression charting the spiritual decay of the Gang - seem to be only so much eloquent gibberish, but contain a seed of truth that we somehow cannot simply wave away.
One example will suffice. As one night the men discuss whether there is any life elsewhere in the universe, the Judge says that there is not. The rest of his answer verges on insanity; and through him we possibly are allowed a glimpse into the author's own mind:
The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.
Blood Meridian is that rarest and most precious of works, a book which speaks directly to the human condition. McCarthy deals with the most profound, the most horrifying, the most powerful drives and instincts embedded within the human spirit, and uses depictions of extreme violence to enumerate its contents. It is a refreshing contrast to the relentless flood of books concerned with the glands, but not the heart; it is a much-needed tonic of the epic and the grandiose, in an age that jeers at grandeur. Most importantly, it is the work of an uncompromising artist and a ferocious intelligence, terrifically enjoyable to read even when dealing with subjects at their most wretched. With McCarthy, every sentence, every word, is weighted for effect; when he chooses to, he strikes like a thunderbolt. Once you reach the end of a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph, the images he conjures up will bloom in your mind like blood in water.
Above all is his supreme achievement, the creation of Judge Holden. Enormous, terrible, bewitching, irresistible, he is less a man, a character, a fictional being, than a force of nature. He is the animating spirit, the driving force, the engine of absolute war and violence for its own sake; he is reality itself in its most depraved and sanguinary aspect. His dance is the Totentanz, never-ending, all-consuming, dancing to the strains of the fiddles sawing up a hellish roundelay and the sound of jackboots slamming on the floorboards, keeping time to the tattoo of the wardrums and the beating of the human heart. He says he never sleeps, we are told. He says he will never die.
In any case, a book to haunt one's dreams.