Monday, October 21, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 20: Eyes Dead White and Sightless as the Eggs of Spiders (seeing fire & darkness in Cormac McCarthy)

Today we note that horror comes in many packages.  Not just supernatural horror or 'slasher' horror or creature features and so on.  In fact, sometimes it comes from outside the genre altogether.  Case in point: Cormac McCarthy.

He is one of my top 5 all-time favourite writers.  I have to admit I didn't know of McCarthy's existence until the Coen brothers made their adaptation of No Country for Old Men in 2007.  It's possibly my favourite film and through it I started my binge on McCarthy's novels.  He has two main stages:  in the first half of his career he wrote about freaks and misfits in Tennessee, kind of like a freakier and more grotesque Flannery O'Connor - and considering that O'Connor was already a mistress of the grotesque, that's saying something! Then he wrote what could be called anti-Westerns, starting with what may be his masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), a gory horrific piece of hyper-historical fiction about 1850s scalp-hunting across the phantasmagorical landscape of theTexas-Mexico borderland.  A haunting and macabre epic full of dark, dark weirdness.

The Border Trilogy (1992-98) and No Country for Old Men (2005) were set in the 20th century. Then for his latest novel to date, The Road (2006), he turned to the post-apocalyptic tale and perhaps thereby more explicitly entered the horror (and science fiction) genre.  All his works are highly literary, beautifully written but also very challenging because of the dense language.  But some of them are somehow page-turners at the same time, No Country and The Road being prime examples.  The latter is easily one of my top 10 favourite novels of all time and everyone should read it.  It is maybe the only novel that made me weep after reading the last page and closing the book.

Theologically, what I love that McCarthy does is that he looks pointless brutality and cosmic bleakness so fully in the face you think he's preaching uncompromising (and eloquent) nihilism.  Then you slowly realise he has slyly inserted possible images of hope and meaning (fire being one of his main recurring motifs, a small flame in a vast darkness).  He has said in an interview that he sympathises with a spiritual view of the world. He definitely gives both sides of the issue a fair hearing (his most explicit instance being 2006's The Sunset Limited: A Novel in Dramatic Form, made into an excellent TV film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel Jackson).

The following is from the first page of The Road.  The fragmentary sentences are intentional and it's a stylistic practice you soon get used to when reading him.  Many of his works carry on in this vein for the entirety of the novel. The Road, however, soon smooths out into a much more economical pace and thrilling, heart-racing and heart-breaking narrative.  But I think this passage conveys very appropriate imagery for a Halloween reading:

In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creatures that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.