THE FAIR: Blood Meridian. A western that puts horror to shame
Updated: Oct 7
Why Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is a Terrifying Read
I've mentioned that Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (Amazon affiliate link) was going to be the focus of this installment of The Fair. This novel, though not strictly horror or fantasy, feels like it is right at home on FFF. I'm currently writing a Western horror fantasy and will perhaps, at some point, go into my opinions on the Wild West and its role as American mythology, at home with the likes of Greek Gods and Viking Giants. But that's for another day. What I want to point out here is how this novel paints the west with a fantastical brush (albeit a dark and twisted one) — something like a nightmare.
This novel is both beautiful and brutal. It tells the story of the Kid, a young man who becomes a member of a group of mercenaries hired to kill Native Americans, and then later just a roaming gang of reapers whose only mission is to spread death like a bad STD.
While the book is full of violence, it is also full of stunning prose and incredibly well-drawn characters, and although I found it difficult to read (for more reasons than the violence—stay tuned for that post in the Foul), I have a feeling it will be impossible to forget.
The strange, violent world of Blood Meridian
Blood Meridian is a terrifying read not just because of the graphic violence, but because of the way it presents a world that is almost entirely without hope. The characters are all struggling against a losing battle, whether it's against the elements, each other, or themselves. The violence and misery are never ending, and even the few moments of respite are shrouded by the knowledge that more gruesomeness is coming. It's a bleak and brutal outlook that the reader is forced to accept by the end.
And you will. You will fight it, but by the time you flip the last few pages, you will have accepted it. Not only that, but the sick feeling you had in the pit of your stomach will slowly fade by the end and leave you feeling...well...a little empty. Non-affected? Is that a thing?
The book is not for everyone. It's graphic, depressing, and often hard to follow. But it's also a masterfully written work of despair that will stay with you long after you've finished it.
But that is what good horror is for, is it not? What rockets this book to a place far above the other horror you've encountered is a real sense of deeper meaning. A book that is saying something, saying something about our humanity, saying something about our history, and saying something about primal urges, emotion, and purpose.
Why do we do the things we do to each other? Why are we so willing to fall in-line with monsters? Why are we even comfortable with what we just read?
A good scare is a great thing. It is fun and gets our blood pumping. But a scare for the sake of a scare is fleeting. A truly terrifying thing is to face our failings. The things that scare us the most are the things we know to be true.
The characters of Blood Meridian
The book is populated with some of the most violent, unpredictable, and dangerous people imaginable. Many of them are based on real historical figures, which only makes their stories all the more chilling. Two characters come to mind when discussing the horror aspects of this book and those are the Judge and the Kid. There are others but to be honest they kind of meld into each other like one blobby mass of evil.
The Judge: The central figure of the novel, the Judge is a monstrous individual who seems to take joy in violence and bloodshed. He's almost inhuman, and his eyes are said to be "like black moons." He's also incredibly intelligent, always one step ahead of everyone else.
The fact of his name alone can send shivers down your spine, at least for me. The idea of an evil man that deems himself your judge and jury is a real fear for many people. It is the abusive father figure who considers himself righteous. It is the cancer patient testing people's mental fortitude by telling them to cut off their own limbs...it's friggin Hitler.
The Kid: The novel's protagonist (if you can call him that) is a young man who gets caught up in the brutal world of the Judge and his cohorts. Though caught up may be the wrong word. It's not like he is a sweet young thing who is corrupted by the end—the nice boy who got mixed in with the wrong crowd. I think it is pretty obvious by the start that this was the direction "The Kid" was going, and the only place he could have ended up. Perhaps that is why McCarthy called him the Kid instead of giving him a name. Like the young gang member who seemed destined to fall from the start. The kid we hear about on the news but whose name we never bother to learn.
Notes on Violence in Fiction
When I read a book, I'm usually hopping right into a few posts about it, whether Fair or Foul or something else. Normally, some topic jumps out at me, inspiring me to rant on and on about it...but not this one. I read another novel around the same time, an indie fantasy by Shelly Campbell titled, Under the Lesser Moon. This one was equally violent, though not for the same reasons but for specific harms that come to male children in the book.
After reading both of these titles, I wasn't exactly in the frame of mind to start writing praises or criticisms. I do have praises plenty for both (I will eventually write about Under the Lesser Moon as well but only after I read the next in the series to get a better hold on my feelings toward it). But my biggest criticisms are my reaction to the subject matter. Which has nothing to do with the book or how it was written.
A writer did not make a mistake because I feel a certain way. They are not responsible for my sensitivities.
Although I understand some people's aversion to content that explores these topics, it is important to remember that just because you have a bad reaction to it, it doesn't mean the writing is bad.
It means you are a big baby.
I felt the need to add this caveat because the topic of violence in fiction always seems to ruffle some feathers. Some believe you don't get to write about bloody violence, hopelessness, rape, incest, and other topics. I do think that there is a way to approach these topics well, but what is "well" to me could be the opposite for someone else.
But I digress.
Blood Meridian is a terrifying book for many reasons. The violence is graphic and unrelenting, the characters are amoral and chilling, and the atmosphere is one of constant dread.
McCarthy gives an unflinching look at the dark side of humanity. The gang terrorizes the American West, scalping and murdering anyone they come across.
The novel is not just a Western adventure story; it is also a contemplation of the nature of violence and morality. The characters in the book are often savage and disgusting, and yet something is compelling about them. McCarthy forces us to confront the brutality of humanity and makes us question our morality in the process.
Blood Meridian is not an easy read, but it is a powerful and disturbing one. If you're looking for a novel that will make you think while it creeps the hell out of you and makes you feel gross and icky inside, this is it.
Better yet, if you are a horror writer who is looking for a masterclass on writing horror with deeper purpose and meaning, look no further.
One of our authors is an incredible horror writer. Check out Human Beings by Rachael Llewellyn
Amazon affiliate link: https://amzn.to/3E2uAUr
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.