Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a passionate, lyrical, and ugly novel of depravity and destruction of life in the Old West. It is a story of a hellish journey where violence and corruption are currency in a life of murder and treachery. Contrasting scenes of scenic beauty, poetically described by McCarthy, are negated by his gruesome accounts of despicable scenes of human cruelty in the examination of evil.
Like all of McCarthy’s earlier novels, Blood Meridian (1985) had a lukewarm arrival to the literary world in the sense of sales and publicity, in part due to McCarthy’s own aversion to self-promotion (Woodward 28). Yet critics and scholars were captivated by the mindless violence of the story and its tale of deceit, genocide, and gruesome realities set around the US-Mexico border in the 1840’s (James 31).
Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s fifth book, was received with a variety of reactions from critics. Terence Moran, though finding McCarthy’s writing to be “evocative,” believed the author “failed in Blood Meridian to retell a simple Western in his haunting, original voice” (37). Conversely, Steven Shaviro wrote, “Cormac McCarthy, the solitary poet of his exultation, is our greatest living author…[this novel] manifests a sublime visionary power that is matched only by a still more ferocious irony” (144).
This novel, due to its candid narration of barbarous events, prevails as one of a few books which challenge traditional molds of literature. Not a story of the redeemable antagonist or the helpless victim, Blood Meridian blurs the lines of sanctity and depravity in this lawless and demoralized land. This examination of the most unimaginable evils ever witnessed creates and interesting ground on which to base themes and interpretation. One critic says that in Blood Meridian, “the myth of paradise lost and regained…has been abolished once and for all” (Shaviro, 144).
This gruesome story follows the journey of the disturbed son of a Tennessee schoolmaster, known only as “the kid.” The kid stumbles through the southwest and the Mexican desert, surviving gun shots, bar fights, and fires, fleeing each town only to find lawlessness and savagery in another. After witnessing several scenes of slaughter and human depravity which include mindless slayings of peaceful soldiers, innocent villagers, and helpless infants, the kid is thrown in a Mexican jail. His freedom is soon bought by the leader of a clan of scalp hunters, hired by the Mexican government to return Apache scalps for money. The plot follows the kid as he travels with the band of murders and its mysterious leader, Judge Holden. The story follows the trail of blood and death throughout its hunt across a spectacular setting of the desert southwest.
McCarthy’s description of the beautiful landscape is the lone point of beauty in this dark and grotesque book. According to one critic, McCarthy’s poetic descriptions and beautifully patterned lines give life to this dismal and horrifying story (Moran 37). Passages describing brutal, bloody killings give way to the molded prose describing landscapes and vistas:
…a dwarf forest of spined things, through a stone gap in the mountains and down among blooming artemisia and aloe. They crossed a broad plain of desert grass dotted with pamilla. On the slopes were gray stone walls that followed the ridgelines down to where they lay broached and tumbled upon the plain. (McCarthy 88)
There are great similarities between the world described in Blood Meridian and what are thought to be the traditional elements of hell. Through McCarthy’s candid descriptions of human cruelty and the gross realities of the time in which the book is set, the reader begins to have a greater understanding of evil, producing what one critic has described as “a vertiginous, nauseous exhilaration” (Shaviro 144). McCarthy reinforces his novel as the breeding ground for evil by implanting similarities of hell in setting and characters resembling demons and the devil himself. The novel focuses on the kid’s existence in a world of depravity that seems foreign to the reader, but is all too normal in the world created in the book (147).
As the novel tells of the kid’s appalling journey, much of the action seen is centered around Judge Holden. The mysterious, malignant man varies in interpretation from godlike to child-like. Many critics have commented on Holden’s manipulative power, ability to remain unchanged by years, and his appearance in several places at what seems the same time. Many lines are drawn between Judge Holden and the devil (Wallach 125).
Though not a literary success in terms of book sales and overall recognition, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian tells and intriguing story in a light in which the Old West is rarely seen. Conscienceless violence, devil-like characters, and breathtaking scenery fill this novel uninhibited by morality or rectitude.