Folio Fiction Editor Sinéad O’Callaghan reflects on her relationship with Cormac McCarthy’s writing and the incredible way he finds beauty in bleakness. Here, Sinéad collects the often bloody, but always beautiful, moments in McCarthy’s work that remain ‘burned into our brains forever’.
Please note there are violent and graphic scenes described in this blog.
I first came across Cormac McCarthy’s work in detail in my second year of university. As an English student and a self-proclaimed ‘literary ingénue’, my only previous knowledge of the writer had been The Road, thrust upon me by my secondary school English teacher. It burned itself onto my heart, an emblem of great yet horrific writing. I thought to myself: how does someone manage to capture beauty in such unrelenting bleakness?
But being seventeen, I forgot all about him and moved on to the next novel. That was until I saw McCarthy’s name appear on the list of seminars being offered to impressionable university students. I jumped at the chance. I consumed The Border Trilogy, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men. I compulsively turned the pages in wonderous horror whilst reading Child of God and basked in the tension of The Orchard Keeper.
When I approach his work now as Folio’s resident McCarthy editor, I think of my seventeen-year-old self and the awe I felt in the wake of reading McCarthy’s words for the first time. What makes him so great isn’t necessarily all the bloody scenes he describes, but rather the gory details that are implied but are left unseen: just out of eyeshot but somehow burned into our brains forever. As our Folio collection of his novels grows, I have pulled together my five most terrifying McCarthy moments, some bloody, some not-so-much, but all incredibly, terribly beautiful.
1. The Road
He started down the rough wooden steps… Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous… Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.
When I reread The Road at University, I came across an article in The Atlantic where author Benjamin Percy argued that the above quote was one of the scariest in history. After living through a pandemic, I couldn’t agree more. It shows us the desperation of humanity, the willingness some people will go to survive, and the horror we choose to inflict on our very own in our darkest of moments. All without being overtly explicit. This is McCarthy at his most powerful.
Illustration by Gérard DuBois
2. No Country for Old Men
Illustration by Gérard DuBois
Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don’t pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?
I have shivers even revisiting this. A petrol station. The most psychopathic villain in all of history. A coin that decides one’s fate. This has all the ingredients to make your spine curl. And when the clerk wins his life? My heart pumps with adrenaline as Chigurh pulls away from the gas station. I am almost sure he will return. But he is a man of his word. And the coin has spoken.
3+4. Blood Meridian
It may be cheating, taking two of my moments from a singular text, but such is the power of McCarthy’s writing. To be honest, there could be a whole separate blog post on the bloody, terrible, wonderful moments in this novel. It is free flowing, poetic. It is the American West at sundown. McCarthy uses two of his most powerful tropes here – showing us the most explicitly gruesome scenes using poetic language (so you don’t really take in what you are reading) AND not showing us anything at all but allowing us to read in between the lines in horror and fear.
Is there somebody in there?
I wouldn’t go in.
He hitched himself up and buttoned his trousers and stepped past them and went up the walk toward the lights. The first man watched him go and then opened the door of the jakes.
Good God Almighty, he said… Towering over them all is the judge, and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in double time and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
We know the judge has killed the boy. We know he is dancing with evil delight. We know he is the devil, that the deed done was horrific. But McCarthy lets us decide just how horrific it is in our own heads.
Illustration by Gérard DuBois
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.
No one writes violence in quite such a poetic way. I pause every time after I read this quote, as if my brain can’t grasp the horrific scene before me.
5. Child of God
Each leaf that brushed his face deepened his sadness and dread. Each leaf he passed he’d never pass again. They rode over his face like veils, already some yellow, their veins like slender bones where the sun shone through them. He had resolved himself to ride on for he could not turn back and the world that day was as lovely as any day that ever was and he was riding to his death.
Unrelenting. Unforgivable. These are the words that spring to mind when I think about reading the novel. It’s violent to a level of extreme uncomfortableness, and confronts questions that most of us would rather never think about in our lifetimes. Sometimes I wonder if it is too much. But still, there is beauty. And as I watch Lester Ballard, a ‘Child of God’ descend into evil and lose all sense of what it is to be human, I see how tenderly McCarthy treats arguably his most despicable of characters.