Rereading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

“The ragged sparks blew down the wind. The prairie about them lay silent. Beyond the fire it was cold and the night was clear and the stars were falling. The old hunter pulled his blanket about him. I wonder if there’s other worlds like this, he said. Or if this is the only one.”

— Blood Meridian, Chapter XXIII

Well fuck. That was a difficult book.

And with that, I have refinished Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West, Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying and repugnant masterpiece and one of my all-time favourite novels. This was my first time revisiting the book since my early twenties and I’m at a stage in my life where its content is more challenging to stomach than ever before. To quote one of the epigraphs that open the novel, I’ve reached a state where I “fear blood more and more. Blood and time.”

The book is a grotesque inversion of the classic western, a mockery of simple yarns about ‘cowboys and injuns’. (Fitting that I should read this around Thanksgiving in the United States.) Based on true events, it tells the story of a runaway teenager who falls in with the vicious Glanton Gang, a band of American mercenaries contracted by the Mexican government to kill and scalp hostile Native American tribes. Very quickly, madness and bloodlust reigns and they become the true enemy — murdering, pillaging, and raping their way across the lawless frontier.

It is a punishing book. It is a cryptic book. It is a book with one of the most memorable endings I have ever read. It is a book where scenes of horrific violence are interspersed with long and often beautiful passages about journeying across a savage and desolate landscape, a place where the desert bushes “pulsed like burning holothurians in the phosophorus dark of the sea’s depths” and “crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk”. These, in turn, are followed up with campfire scenes where the characters, after a day’s hard ride or slaughter, sit and philosophise, in their own warped way, about the human condition.

Would you enjoy reading this book? To gauge this, let me offer you part of the most nauseating passage in the book, describing one of their many attacks on a tribal campsite:

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 [that is, the gang’s own American Indian mercenaries] 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…

Like, holy shit, right? Or perhaps you, like me, are a bit squeamish and will wince at a moment of casual nastiness like this one:

One of the mares had foaled in the desert and this frail form soon hung skewered on a paloverde pole over the raked coals while the Delawares passed among themselves a gourd containing the curdled milk taken from its stomach.

It is also a book which benefits from research and rereading. For instance, I did not pick up in my first readthrough that one of the gang members, the sadistic Bathcat, was a “fugitive from Vandiemen’s Land”. That is to say, his key qualification for being a scalp hunter was helping with the genocide of Aboriginal Tasmanians.

Of course, there is no perfect novel and Blood Meridian is no exception. Nestled within all the merciless prose, it becomes apparent that McCarthy has it out for mules. The book continually depicts, with increasingly silly galumph, all the ways that mules can die horribly — from bullets to snake bites to starvation to being pushed off cliffs and so on. There are also so many ways McCarthy can conjure up metaphors of people travelling across a desert wasteland before it begins to sound repetitive and strained. His riders are “like a ghost army”, “like a company of armed and mounted millers wandering in dementia”, “like a visitation from some heathen land”, like “a patrol condemned to ride out some ancient curse”, and “like a deputation of spastics”, etc., etc., etc.

Then some passages completely floored me. One of the best moments in the book is when a group of United States Army filibusters are ambushed by Comanche warriors, with the attackers described as a “legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream”. These are not your grandparents’ Hollywood knockoff Indians either. The Comanches are wearing “coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil” and appear “like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning”.

Another, perhaps my favourite in the novel, involves our protagonist, alone and half-starved and freezing to death, stumbling across a “lone burning tree in the desert.” What follows is a perversion of the story of God speaking to Moses through a burning bush:

…he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jeda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.

There is a strong sense that Blood Meridian is asserting a worldview of natural evil, of fundamentally irredeemable forces that permeate the cosmos. I am reminded, for instance, of the thesis of Lars von Trier’s hallucinatory film Antichrist: “Nature is Satan’s church.”

Nothing personifies this cosmic evil in Blood Meridian better than the character of Judge Holden, a huge and hairless member of the Glanton Gang of preternatural strength and intellect, who has been described by literary critic Harold Bloom as “the most frightening figure in all of American literature”. I won’t elaborate too much on this character because I feel he is something best discovered and confronted by readers on their own. With Holden, McCarthy has created a villain for the ages, a being whose very purpose in life is to force his indomitable will upon the world and preach the gospel of warfare. “If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay” he declares. It is, in his mind, “the truest form of divination… War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

And what can counter such a powerful, all-consuming god? Redemptive moments appear far and few between the callous margins of this novel. Yet McCarthy, like with many of his other books, throws us a faint glimmer in the epilogue. Like the brook trout which lived in “deep glens” that “hummed of mystery” in the epilogue of The Road, or Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s haunting dreams at the close No Country For Old Men, there is something far more enigmatic at work on the final page of Blood Meridian…

“He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.”

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