Remember when I said that I might review a book every once in a while, and then I didn’t for a long time? Well, now’s the time! I’m going to tell you about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Is it horror or horror related? It’s certainly horrific. And fucking gory. So, yeah. I’d say so. If you’re reading averse, don’t worry because I’m going to let you in on a little secret of mine — (whispering conspiratorially) audiobooks. It may seem childish to want to be read to, but I have a longish commute and a near infinite wellspring of podcasts and music at my fingertips just isn’t enough! I need narrative storytelling that I can enjoy while not killing myself or anyone else with my rolling murder machine (Prius C). Movies are not an option for (hopefully) obvious reasons. Audiobooks are the next best thing.
Blood Meridian tells the story of men tearing a swath of destruction through northern Mexico and the U.S. borderlands. It is set in the mid-1800s in the years before the U.S. Civil War. A young man called “The Kid” is often the focus of the story – particularly at the beginning and at the end – but McCarthy did not write the story with a traditional main character. Rather, the events depicted are often seen through The Kid’s eyes but not always. The men The Kid tags along with are vicious, cowardly, hubristic, drunken, and so on. Above all, they are murderous. They kill for money. They kill for retribution. They kill for petty insults. They kill for sport. And, terrifyingly, they kill for no reason. The bulk of the book concerns the Glanton gang, a group of men acting as mercenaries in the Mexican desert. The gang is led by “Captain” Glanton and his right-hand man, Judge Holden, who seems to have been everywhere and know almost everything. Ostensibly, they are ridding the countryside of Apaches, whose scalps bring a reward. In reality, they are hedonistic, amoral monsters.
McCarthy filled Blood Meridian with more (literal) filth and gore than I would have thought possible. The characters are often caked in dried blood and trail dust. They starve and thirst. They get injured in extremely explicit ways. And they kill and maim in even more explicit ways. When the men are fatigued and thirsty, their run-ins with Apaches or townsfolk seem dreamlike or otherworldly. Such is McCarthy’s command of his craft. He lays out this stark and bleak western epic in intricate, excruciating detail, often capturing (and conveying) the emotions of each moment – from wearily marching through the desert to raising hell in a village to raiding a Mexican or indigenous settlement. At times, this gets a little repetitive though, as this sequence repeats itself several times throughout the book. This may be inherent in the nature of the men’s journey. Maybe the repetition – the routine of it – serves to inoculate the reader against the increasingly repulsive and unforgivable acts committed within these pages. Maybe McCarthy was just challenging himself to pack in every last gory idea that he could think up. Either way, the book is intense. It was made even more intense when I read that the Glanton gang is a real historical band of scalp hunters/shitty human beings. Glanton’s lieutenant/advisor, Judge Holden, is as mysterious in the book as he seems to be in real life – accurate historical accounts of him are fuzzy at best. McCarthy’s Holden may not be human at all. He has been met by all of the men in Glanton’s gang at different points in their lives; he seems to know everything about science and nature; he has strange habits (ie, wandering naked at night instead of sleeping); and he may be truly evil. I’m not talking evil-with-good-tendencies or good-with-evil-tendencies, but pitch black evil.
THE FINAL CUT: Blood Meridian is a daunting anti-western that will satisfy the gorehounds and literary snobs alike. McCarthy’s penchant for detail and creative simile fill this epic story with gut-churning horrors that leaves readers feeling like they’ve just survived a terrifying ordeal (in a good way).
Bonus: Richard Poe’s reading of Blood Meridian for the audiobook is a pitch perfect casting for this novel. His gravelly voice weaves this tale in masculine, detached tones, just as you would expect it to be read. He gives each character a unique and fitting voice too. Top-notch. My only (tiny) complaint was that he pronounced a few words incorrectly. But who am I to judge? I can barely read!