Outside of Red Dead Redemption, Bone Tomahawk, and to a lesser extent The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the western genre as a whole has been on life support for decades. Don’t worry party people, your favorite classic westerns can easily be found at retirement homes where blue hairs & no hairs nap their gilded years away to Gunsmoke and Rawhide reruns. I’m looking at you ME TV! Lo and behold a miracle occurred. The cruel year of our lord 2020, supplied the genre with a much needed jolt of life. Death’s Head Press published a series of SPLATTER WESTERNS to much fanfare. They sport powerful cover art by Justin Coons, and intensely compelling reading material inside. Featuring up and coming horror voices: Wile E. Young, Patrick Harrison III, Chris Miller, John Wayne Comunale, Chandler Morrison, Christine Morgan, and Kristopher Triana to name a few. Each book recalls the genre twisting works of Joe R. Lansdale and Sergio Corbucci–contain all the grit and wit of Elmore Leonard’s wild west bonanzas–repulse and confound just like Jodofowsky’s El Topo and Monte Hellman’s Ride the Whirlwind. The DHP Splatter Western series offers a fun and schlocky good time for anyone who fancies a steady diet of spaghetti westerns, Ghoultown’s Live From Texas, and the Undead Nightmare soundtrack. As I have been diligently drafting my own foray into the genre specifically—I feel no research would be complete without visiting the grand pappy of them all. Come along thrill seekers as ECR highlights all the reasons Cormac McCarthy’s deep dive into malevolence is not only the ultimate splatter western, but also a QUALITY CHEAP THRILL.
This review deals with a book whose central tenet involves peeling the scalp off of human beings both living and dead, and how this violent act corrupts a ragtag gang of Americans devolving from government contractors to hunted outlaws. If this plot pushes your nope button read no further.
To begin, this book conjures the following adjectives: ultra-violent, complex, psychedelic, xenophobic, misogynistic, upsetting, and at times a ruggedly beautiful masterpiece. A simple google search will clap-back with similar assessments as mine. A few of them will even go so far as to list Blood Meridian as their favorite book. I will not count myself in those numbers, but it does come close at second to Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go. And just like that cherished childhood story, BLOOD MERIDIAN moves the reader across a strange landscape on an emotionally draining journey.
Based loosely on a 19th century self-published memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue by Samuel Chamberlain. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West, came about after the author received a MacArthur Fellows “Genius Grant.” It’s notable for being the only book published by McCarthy in the Reagan eighties and stands as an early magnum opus–wedged nicely between the superb Suttree and the lauded All The Pretty Horses and utterly despised upon release–only receiving a second appraisal when ivory tower egghead, Harold Bloom, deemed it worthy of inclusion in his English fiction canon. Read How to Read and Why for more of the professor’s hot takes. Bloom’s comparison to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick sparked my interests in seeking the book out myself. Both are written with dense verbiage steeped in the King James Bible. Both explore male dominated groups focused on team building. And both feature a big fat albino for a central metaphor. Moby Dick’s great white whale gets combined with Captain Ahab and together they morph into a giant pedicidal polymath who can quote the classics, perform mystical alchemy, and is the physical embodiment of either God or the devil, or more frighteningly, both. But before we can speak about the greatest villain ever created we must understand his opposite…our main character…sort’ve.
MEET THE KID
While more audience advocate than a practical hero, the nameless protagonist known only as the Kid is an illiterate runaway who makes his way down to Texas in the spring of 1849. As far as westerns go, this opening could be viewed as standard boiler plate plot launcher, along with strangers meeting on a stagecoach, a drifter rides into town, etc. However, there is much, much more at work here. McCarthy provides a cosmic overture when the boy’s father relates how on the night the Kid was born, the Leonids meteor shower made it seem like the sky was falling around them. His childbirth will result in the Kid’s first murder as his mother dies shortly after. The Kid forms into the quiet western hero archetype, à la Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Other than that info, we have limited knowledge beyond his taste for mindless violence and absolutely zero inner monologue. We never learn his thoughts beyond minimal surface conversation. We are only allowed to see what he sees. However, in earlier drafts the Kid’s thought bubbles appeared consistently from beginning to end. This lack of internal motivation forces the reader into a casual observer. And the only thing casual about the ensuing carnage is how often it happens. Just like a Scorsese film, McCarthy passes zero judgements as he runs out the string. In the book’s first quarter our “hero” the Kid fights strangers, endures stab wounds and bullet holes, flees unpaid medical bills, witnesses riots, burns down a hotel with a guy named Toadvine, avoids molestation by a hermit, beats up a bartender over a glass of water, loses every stitch of clothing and his mule, joins a gang of vainglorious filibusters, survives the resulting Comanche attack, wanders the desert for days, and ends up in a makeshift prison where he is reunited with his arsonist friend, Toadvine. At this moment, the gang of vicious scalp hunters led by Captain John Joel Glanton enters stage left. Then for the next two hundred some odd pages all hell breaks loose. By the time the Kid reaches the last chapter, he will have aged out of his nomenclature into the Man. And hopefully so have we…emotionally…ladies included.
MEET THE JUDGE
Judge Holden is the bald, white, and massive dark heart of the book. His antagonism of the Kid starts with his physical description. The Kid owns a small frame with big hands and big wrists, while the Judge is massive standing over seven feet tall with almost dainty hands and ankles. He is completely hairless with skin free of pigment that gives him a phosphorescent glow in broad daylight. The Kid meets the Judge in chapter one. During a driving rainstorm the Judge interrupts a tent revival and sparks a riot by accusing the preacher of lewd acts with a goat. This spectacular introduction sticks with the reader once he returns riding side by side with Captain Glanton and the other scalp hunters. While based on a pseudo historical person, McCarthy’s Holden is only a man in the loosest terms as the Judge never eats nor sleeps and possesses other preternatural abilities. The Judge’s strange omnipresence is explained by Tobin (the priest or ex-priest) Every man in the gang claims to have met the Judge sometime before joining Glanton’s outfit. Tobin relates he’s first impression of the Judge as he seems to appear out of nowhere sitting on a boulder. Tobin jokes that he must’ve brought the boulder with him since there was no other rock like it nearby. The gang is desperate for an escape as they have stirred up a war party of Apaches, and ran plumb out of gunpowder. Immediately Judge Holden made himself useful as leads them on a quest for spring water and other natural elements. At the top of a volcano the Judge instructs the gang to urinate on the concoction. As it dries in the sun the Apaches close in. The Judge fills his rifle with the mixture, waves a white flag at the approaching braves, then cocks his own gun and winks at Glanton’s gang with one word, “Gentlemen?” And just like that they survive the battle on top of a volcano. Let that sink in. That passage is often quoted by others whenever referring to this book, since apparently the science behind it is 100% true. That’s next level detail accumulation McCarthy gathered over five years of living off fat smarty pants money. Being a master chemist aside, The Judge is also a sophisticated raconteur who speaks and reads too many languages for me to list here. Large chunks of the narrative are dedicated to the Judge’s point-of-view on concepts both broad and esoteric. Special attention gets paid to Holden’s love and justification of war. Which makes the next part of Holden’s persona a vile satire of such learned men. Allusions to Judge Holden’s predilection for preying on children get sprinkled throughout as he can bee seen on multiple occasions displaying ‘free-candy in a rusty van’ benevolence before the child disappears. Make no mistake, he’s a cold-blooded killer despite his charming mysteriousness. A vile satire of Robert Heinlein’s Competent man if I’ve ever seen one. Judge Holden is a destructive force of nature determined to inflict copious amounts of mayhem. While some of you critical rascals out there in letters-land may draw easy comparisons between Holden and McCarthy’s other supreme villain, Anton Chigurh, both are unstoppable forces but the former appears to be immortal. After the Kid grows into the Man, he and the Judge meet at a saloon for the penultimate scene.
MEET THE SPOILER ALERT: (skip to next section)
As another meteor storm rages overhead (nice call back to scene one Charlie) The Judge and Kid/Man engage in a heated theoretical discussion about having sympathy in one’s heart for the weak…or some nonsense. This disagreement will culminate with the JUDGE molesting then murdering the Kid/Man in an outhouse. Sort’ve. Here the narrative mercifully leaves the details to the imagination. But whatever happened you can bet your bottom dollar that it was terrible as an innocent stranger opens the door and only utters two words: “My God.” Immediately following this harrowing discovery of Kid/Man’s body, we are treated to a bizarre dancing sequence that ends like this:
Towering over them all is the Judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime 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.
MEET THE LANDSCAPE
The human drama present in McCarthy’s novel is only matched by his impressionistic descriptions of the southwest setting. This painterly technique can lead to long passages of delirium for the reader. The surreal world of Blood Meridian is vast, variegated, and at times amorphous as if viewed from behind heated vapor. Each location contains enough visual imagery that any future film adaptation would be unable to capture the essence despite the CGI tech advancements. Just look at James Franco’s preposterous short film based on the book. (It does an incredible job of shrinking this epic story and ringing out everything good about it.) While I respect these sections of the book whole heart and lung, I must confess that on my first read I found them damn near inscrutable. If you’ve made it this far I can almost hear your inner thoughts now, “It’s hard for a dummy like you J.D. to wrap your tiny mind around anything of artistic merit.” It was only after half-heartedly giving up and purchasing the audiobook narrated by Richard Poe, that the vividness of the world made sense to me. I know, I know, audiobook listening is not the same as book reading, but it helped me immensely and afterwards I leaned heavily into the entire audiobook phenomenon…judge all you want reader…Mr. Frank I’m looking at you! A few of the highlights include: the muddy streets of Nacogdoches, the surprise Comanche attack, the Apache sneak attack on the playa, the town of San Diego, a tree of dead babies, a tree burning in the snow, a cliffside trail clogged with donkey traffic, the ferry sequence with the Yuma. And of course the epilogue, which seeks to confound the average reader as much as stimulate those of us who are steeped deeply in the world of Lit Fic. We know who we are…right? Hive fives…? Fives? Anyone?
Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate the complexity of cathedrals, but I’ll still worship at the local chapel because it is easier. If that makes me a big fat dum-dum then so be it, at least I’m not an asshole.
MEET THE TEXT
Before you throw down your hard earned money for a copy, let me make this very clear. This is a difficult book to read. McCarthy’s book is seriously pumped up on literary steroids. Again, this is where Richard Poe’s exceptional performance can come to the rescue. In typical McCarthy (I wanna be Faulkner) fashion he flips the bird at the average reader by avoiding most punctuation outside a comma and a period. The language is sparse but expansively muscular with textures of King James throughout. This is why I feel the book is better heard than read. Dang I can hear your groan from where I’m sitting typing this now. A few more interesting touches can be found in the front matter as three hilariously on-the-nose epigrams begin the book. In addition, each chapter header contains a brief snapshot of coming events, like a roadmap for readers getting lost amongst the adjectives and liberal conjunctive word play. I’m sure that the stylistic choice has a name, but it escapes me at the moment. The chapters run long and scenes flow into each other. Often only being broken apart with a Kurt Vonnegut like stinger. His famous, “So it goes…” is replaced with “They rode on…” My personal favorite sequence involves a sentence that is over two hundred words in length and closes out chapter four (my lucky number.)
Having come of age reading James M. Cain and Stephen King, McCarthy’s elaborate descriptive eloquence can be stifling between the stacks of austere dialogue. This dexterity of vocabulary contrasts beautifully with the ugly transgressive vignettes swirling around the second unit crew of this book. Fortunately, these challenging images of cruelty come and go swiftly like telephone poles along a highway. The scenes of copious bloodshed and savagery (which there are many) are stomach churning in their vibrant details. However, overall they read like a journalist documenting chaos–no room for editorializing the mayhem. Death waits around every page turn to drag someone to hell in a dehumanizing way.
With this much brutality on display for three hundred pages, any one with two eyes and a heart will begin to look for some kind of meaning to the senseless violence. Oh dear thrill seekers, this book understands its the central theme very well. I have read many interpretations that refer to the gnosticism inherent in the text. I will not chase that rabbit as it will run just out of my grasp from the moment I try. I will offer my unstudied and most likely off-the-cuff evaluation of the text. My interpretation of Blood Meridian can best be bottled and sold like this: Metaphysics collide with mankind’s sliding scale of ethics and morality. Judge Holden’s almost demonic presence offsets the unseen Deity in the sky who wears the universe for a beard and does not care about the plight of human suffering. Murder and mayhem exists as point-counterpoint balance for the mortal weight of this unknowable infinite. In summation, this book may be the closest an author of fiction ever gets to scratching the beard of God.
MEET THE ARTWORK
A quick google search will reveal a treasure trove of fan art dedicated to this book. (including an entire project attempting to visualize each section by different artists, look it up. I have sprinkled a few of Duane Crockett’s pieces in the post. I’d love to see RJ Ivankovic pull off a beginning reader’s version…hey according to Blood Meridian anything is possible.
MEET THE CONCLUSION
While not as much fun to read as one of DHP’s Splatter Westerns, Blood Meridian ticks all the boxes as far as content for the genre goes. It can be seen as schlocky nonsense, sure, but JUDGE HOLDEN maintains a grip on the reader long after you’ve either finished the book or thrown it across the room. His strange magic will force the adults in the room to confront the emotions that made them gravitate to the material in the first place. It’s okay to hate this book…it will not hate you back…in fact it doesn’t even know you exist. But it’s waiting for you on a shelf somewhere, like a saddle horse in a stable. And if you do saddle up for a ride…know that it is a wild unbroken mustang…it will be a struggle to manage at first. But if you can survive until the end, you will race galloping over the hills and across the cosmos. I highly recommend for adventurers only.
If you’d like to learn more about the splatter western phenomenon, Death’s Head Press editor Patrick C. Harrison III explains his inspiration, sort’ve.
J.D. Graves is an author whose first novel, MAYHEM SAM, will be published by Death’s Head Press sometime in 2022. His stage play TALL PINES LODGE was an official selection at the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival and the 2007 FronteraFest in Austin, you can find a copy here. His other stage play, STANLEY AND JIM, was performed at the Manhattan Rep Theatre in 2009 to a total of three people. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, Black Mask, Mystery Weekly, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern: Tech Noir, Broadswords & Blasters, Breaking Bizarro, Tough Crime #1, Switchblade #11, Rock And A Hard Place Magazine, and others. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of EconoClash Review: Quality Cheap Thrills, and lives in the woods of East Texas with his wife and kids.