Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (Random House, 1985)

With a contract for Alpache scalps, Captain Glanton and his gang of mercenaries move through the American Southwest massacring and pillaging. Among them is Judge Holden, a monstrous Lucifer; learned, charismatic, heartless with vaulting ambition for control. Beside him rides a teenage runaway known only as ‘the kid’. His title suggests innocence, but the kid has fostered in himself all the brutality and callousness needed to survive in the god-forsaken land.

Blood Meridian is unrelenting in its violence, describing horror upon horror until the reader accepts this as merely part of the fabric of the world. It is at once both fascinating and repulsive, and the novel itself questions whether it is fitting to hear of such evil:

The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.
The judge smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said.
The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.
(p. 248)

More than once I questioned whether I should continue reading Blood Meridian, but as McCarthy observes even a book as ‘good’ as the Bible does not hold back in its portrayal of evil. Though the violence of the novel is extreme, I do not think it is gratuitous. It is not in there to excite or thrill, but for the sake of truth.

McCarthy sees the darkness festering within all, but he fails to offer any redemption. In this Blood Meridian is unlike McCarthy more recent novel, The Road. The Road tells of a father and son travelling through a post-apocalyptic landscape even more desolate and chaotic than the West in Blood Meridian. The father and son who are ‘carrying the fire’ are often tempted towards unconcern or hopelessness but the bond of love preserves them. Despite the evil it portrays, the novel holds at its centre faith, hope and love, maintained even against the most dehumanising opposition. But in Blood Meridian these are not virtues but vulnerabilities. It lets no force for good stand against the diabolic onslaught.

Despite your feelings about Blood Meridian, you can hardly fault McCarthy’s epic, majestic style. As with poetry, much needs to be read out loud to be fully appreciated. And when read it is like falling suddenly into some dark lake. It engulfs, pushing against you from all sides. It is vivid and masterful. But frightening.