The weirdness of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

  • Themes: Culture

Blood Meridian is McCarthy’s masterpiece and one of the most compellingly disturbing novels ever written.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Amidst the myriad eulogies to the American novelist and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, who has died aged 89, there is a salient, perhaps even reassuring, fact. Although he ended his life and career praised as perhaps the definitive writer of his age, he toiled away without particular success until he was nearly 60, when his sixth novel All the Pretty Horses was a bestseller and brought his terse, poetic style to a mass audience. McCarthy subsequently went on to publish another six novels, most of which met with similar acclaim, although his final two, 2022’s Stella Maris and The Passenger, received a more muted reaction.

Yet both McCarthy aficionados and general readers alike often refer to his fifth book, Blood Meridian, as his true masterpiece.

The literary critic Harold Bloom called it ‘the ultimate western’, even as he admitted that ‘my first two attempts to read through Blood Meridian failed, because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage’ and Time heralded it as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, alongside the likes of The Great Gatsby, A Passage to India and To the Lighthouse. Those three, fine examples of literature though they undoubtedly are, cannot compare to Blood Meridian for sheer visceral force, although The Great Gatsby might well have been enlivened by a scene in which Nick Carraway is decapitated and his head ‘pickled’, and To the Lighthouse would undoubtedly have benefitted from a moment in which the Ramsay family had their deliberations interrupted by an attack of Comanche warriors, ‘all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious’.

It is fair to say that death – whether hilarious or, rather more often, ghastly and horrible – is not just the central preoccupation of Blood Meridian, but of McCarthy’s literary career. He may have commented, in a rare interview that he gave to Vanity Fair in 2005, that ‘Most people don’t ever see anyone die. It used to be if you grew up in a family you saw everybody die. They died in their bed at home with everyone gathered around. Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd’, but the author saw it as his near-evangelical duty to write about its presence in our lives. This was something that he did with a rare genius, but also with an unflinching rigour that can make his fiction unflinchingly difficult, both thematically and in the density of his prose. Those who persist, however, find the rewards considerable.

Donne may have written ‘Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so’, but, in Blood Meridian, McCarthy begged to differ. The second of the book’s epigraphs is drawn from the seventeenth-century Gnostic mystic Jacob Boehme, and it reads ‘It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.’ The novel begins with its protagonist, a fourteen-year old orphan known only as ‘the kid’ emerging into McCarthy’s inimitable depiction of purgatory – ‘outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves’ – and it is said of him that ‘he can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.’

The kid, in any case, is thrown into a nightmarish milieu that simultaneously allows McCarthy to depict America as a paradise lost – not for nothing has the novel been described as ‘Miltonic’ – but also to introduce one of modern literature’s most indelible characters, who comes to dominate proceedings entirely, and who has been the focal point of critical and popular interest in the book. Blood Meridian is set in 1849, and depicts the escapades of the Glanton gang, who were a notorious bunch of scalphunters who operated on the borders of the United States and Mexico, acting out of little more than nihilistic sadism. Virtually any other novelist would have attempted to use the setting and the characters as a pretext for an exploration of the evils of colonialism, but McCarthy’s question is a broader one altogether; what can men do, good or ill alike, when the devil walks freely amongst them?

His antagonist, if that is the correct term, is Judge Holden; a character who is based on a real man, a scalphunter who is featured in the soldier Samuel Chamberlain’s memoir of his military career in the Mexican-American War. McCarthy, who spent most of his writing life impecunious, received a so-called ‘genius grant’ – a MacArthur Fellowship – in 1981, and this allowed him to immerse himself in research for the novel in the American Southwest, where he came upon the legends associated with the Holden character.

In Chamberlain’s account, ‘Who or what he was no one knew but a cooler blooded villain never went unhung; he stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow coloured face destitute of hair and all expression.’ In Blood Meridian, Holden has a similar physical form – ‘he was bold as a stone and he had no trace of a beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them…he was close on to seven feet in height’ – but his moral and philosophical purpose is something far richer.

There has been much critical discussion as to who, or what, Holden represents since the book’s publication; parallels have been found with everyone from Satan in Paradise Lost to the figure of an archon in Gnosticism, and the latter theory is only strengthened by McCarthy’s use of the Boehme epigraph. Yet Holden, who is by far the most interesting and charismatic character in the book, has also acquired fascinating resonance since Blood Meridian was first published. When he declares ‘War is god’, he is not only expressing an all-too-accurate commentary on the American (and the broader human) desire to bow down before weaponry and bloodshed, but he also represents the callous and self-serving coldness that countless politicians and leaders have offered before and since. McCarthy may, or may not, have intended it as a veiled commentary on Reagan-era politics, but now, in the era of Trump, Putin and any other number of strongmen, the words catch even more chillingly than before.

Yet it may be the book’s ending that led none other than David Foster Wallace to remark that Blood Meridian was ‘probably the most horrifying novel of this century’. After endless amounts of bloodshed and horror, McCarthy depicts Holden, naked and enormous and dancing and ‘a great favourite’, never sleeping and it being written ‘he says that he will never die’. Unlike his creator, or the rest of humanity, it seems entirely apt that this strange, otherworldly figure will proceed to immortality, and that his unwholesome, pederastic presence will continue to infest mankind forever after.

There is something profoundly disturbing and distasteful that lies at the heart of Blood Meridian, a sense of inexplicable horrors just out of reach. It is this that not only makes it McCarthy’s masterpiece, but one of the most compellingly unpleasant novels ever written. And Judge Holden, the undying prophet of chaos, stands atop the whole fly-riddled junkheap, resplendent and diabolic, forever.


Alexander Larman