The Evening Redness in the West
June 24, 2021 | 30 min. read
I'd like to think I'm a well read person. I average a book a week or so, with a fifty-fifty split of fiction and non-fiction. Most of the fiction I've read in the past year has been from my backlog of classics, or more recent books that are sure to enter the genre soon. I say all of this not out of arrogance or to sound more cultured than I really Not that spending a significant amount of one's life reading is anything to brag about, anyway. At the end of the day, it's still just passive media consumption. Have you ever seen someone sincerely brag about how much TV they watch? , but rather to qualify the following statement: out of all the literature I've experienced in one way or another, easily the best work among it is Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. It is by far my favorite book, and I doubt I will read anything that I will be quite as devastated by.
Before you Google "blood meridian" and get the most watered down, back-of-the-book synopsis possible, let me give you the quick summary sans spoilers. Blood Meridian takes place in the American-Mexican borderlands during the 1840s. The book loosely follows the experiences of a young runaway, only ever referred to as "the kid", who finds himself joining a band of mercenaries hired by the Mexican government. These mercenaries are known as the Glanton gang led by "Captain" John Joel Glanton, although calling them mercenaries is perhaps more dignified than they deserve. They're a loose band of murderers, deserters, criminals, an ex-priest, and any other manner of outsider with a talent for violence. This gang is contracted to clear the surrounding countryside of the remaining Apaches, and must provide proof by fulfilling a quota of scalps. This sounds horrific, and it is. The gang makes their way across the Mexican frontier and engages in one scene of violence and chaos after another, each more shocking than the last. The horror show reaches a sustained crescendo as the gang begins to simply slaughter any innocent person they come across (Apache or not) and putting entire villages to the sword. At first it appears to be a kind of cold-blooded rationalism - scalps from an Apache war party and scalps from a Mexican farming village look similar enough, why not take both and pocket more blood money? - but quickly degenerates into violence for the sake of sadistic, cathartic . Given today's sociopolitical atmosphere, I expect there to be some people ready to clutch at their pearls or label me as something awful for finding artistic merit in something like this. I totally understand, and invite you to return to your Marvel movies and Harry Potter books. Lives are taken not for any higher purpose or even material gain, but simply because they can be taken.
Easily the most striking thing about the book is its method of storytelling. The entire experience can be summarized in a single word - nightmarish. Most obviously, it is terrifying and at times unbearable (a particular passage describing the desert sand clinging to the wet skulls of the freshly scalped springs to mind). Similarly, the plot progresses with the hazy meandering of a half-remembered dream. Events creep up one after another with little explanation or insight into individual characters' motivations, such that the reader simply ends up at points in the story with little recollection of how they came to be. "The kid", the de facto main character, basically disappears for a considerable chunk of the book - you don't even realize he hasn't been mentioned until several chapters have passed. Most sequences progress as such: one moment, the characters are riding through the desert to some unknown destination. Next, they come across a tavern in the middle of the night. Someone feels slighted after an exchange with the bartender, or a poker game goes south. Things get violent, people die, and then the story moves on. The book is Southern Gothic to its core; grotesquerie occurs, man suffers, and the world continues unceremoniously. If there is a God, his silence is deafening.
The stark prose of the book mirrors the environment of the story perfectly. The novels of Cormac McCarthy are known for their syntactic quirks, and Blood Meridian is no different. Dialogue isn't surrounded in quotation marks and often lacks attribution, which would be confusing save for the fact that there is little conversation or lengthy exchanges between characters. Often, the only dialogue for several pages will be a few muttered words exchanged over a campfire, or some Spanish spoken by a stranger. The lack of theatrics give the words a strange feeling of uselessness, as if the people of the story are doing little more than speaking out into some deep void.
Outside of dialogue, the narration is broken but achingly beautiful. Incomplete sentences are common and there's little punctuation to split up vast streams of consciousness, but the language is nothing short of Biblical. Here's just one example, from one of many surprisingly mundane moments of people riding through the desert:
Out there dark little archipelagos of cloud and the vast world of sand and scrub shearing upward into the shoreless void where those blue islands trembled and the earth grew uncertain, gravely canted and veering out through tinctures of rose and the dark beyond the dawn to the uttermost rebate of space.
Like in every nightmare, there is a monster at the end - sometimes unseen, but its presence is always felt. The monster of Blood Meridian is Judge Holden, the second in command of the Glanton gang. The Judge is a goliath of a man, described to be seven feet tall, albino, and totally bald. While that certainly makes for a distinct picture in the mind's eye, what makes gives him an almost supernatural presence is his magnetic intelligence and oratory skills. He speaks as if from the vantage point of someone outside the story or even space and time looking down on human society with terrible intent (probably no coincidence he reminded me of Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz). Every bit of information revealed about the Judge just adds more to the surrounding mystery. He appears in places and times that seem Were McCarthy any less of a literary talent, this would feel like deus ex machina or just plain terrible writing. The very cold and realist world of Blood Meridian also makes these situations seem miraculous rather than contrived. , has superb skill in everything from languages to dancing to playing violin, and despite choosing to surround himself with illiterate criminals possessing insatiable thirsts for violence The Judge delivers philosophical treatises on the nature of existence and catalogues local cave paintings. The Judge practically leaps off the page the moment he starts talking; his monologues are easily my favorite parts of the book. Although most characters expose little of their inner thoughts or motivations, the only character in which this loss of perspective is truly felt is with Judge Holden. His talent for wanton murder and destruction is shocking, but not knowing why such an extraordinary man would dedicate himself to evil is far more troubling.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing in the book happens right after finishing it. Like a psychedelic drug or bad local restaurant, you leap to your laptop to Google it and see what other people thought of the experience. Up comes Wikipedia, and as shown by the names being blue hyperlinks, the Glanton gang was a real group of scalp hunters in the American southwest. Even some characters of the book like Captain Glanton and Judge Holden were based upon historical figures.
This leads to the inevitable question when it comes to literature: what does it mean? A part of me feels that this question doesn't apply to Blood Meridian, or its answer negates the presupposition of the question itself. In a very meta kind of way, much like the senseless violence of the book, perhaps the story of Blood Meridian is without an ultimate meaning. This is not to say the book is some practical joke or that it's some cheap thrill ride. Much like the violence depicted, just because something is without meaning does not mean it is without impact or emotional resonance.
I'm not wholly satisfied with that thesis, though. I think there is a deeper meaning, although far simpler than one would expect from such a lauded work of literature: there is evil in the heart of mankind, and it is something inescapable and eternal. I really dislike some of the competing theories positing that the book's setting represents Hell, or that the Judge is the personification of Satan. This seems to miss the most basic experience of the book. It's not some exploration of humanity's relationship with God or a convoluted moral treatise. Heck, I'd say there isn't really a central antagonist in Blood Meridian. Judge Holden is perhaps the most eager and effective at bloodshed, but it's ridiculous to think there could be a single individual behind the genocide of Native Of course, he's culpable as a ranking member of a paramilitary organization hired to perpetrate this genocide. But he's not even the leader of this organization - Captain Glanton is. Probably the best candidate for who is ultimately "antagonist" would be the governor who hires the Glanton gang, but it's naive to think the buck stops there. If there were a different governor appointed, or a different government controlling the countryside, or a different civilization that came into contact with the Apaches, the outcome likely would have been the same. There were simply far too many incentives and far too much opportunity for New World colonists to wipe out indigenous cultures to think that history could have unfolded in any other way. To repeat the message of the book, the problem is human nature. . The one group of people that are the blameless victims of the story - the Apaches who are hunted for their scalps - are also seen collecting their share of scalps and committing senseless violence throughout the book. In a sense, everyone has blood on their hands. This very surface-level view of the book as a story of Native Americans defending their homeland against bloodthirsty mercenary invaders can actually be seen as a good argument for the thesis of mankind's innate evil, in fact. Even the most noble of struggles - of a people fighting to defend their existence and way of life - soon devolves into men killing each other for little other than sport. The true, deeper conflict of the book, then, is against human nature itself. This only begs the question: is anything sacred? Is our hunger for violence an inseperable part of what it means to be human? Is it futile to strive towards goodness in such a world? Has it always been like this?
Look no further than the opening epigraph:
Clark, who led last year's expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier showed evidence of having been scalped.
There's an odd strain of thought that I've seen growing amongst some circles in the past year or so. It's a kind of utopian-primitivist ideal that sometime before the dawn of civilization, humanity was pure and good and lived amongst nature in total harmony and cooperation. This idea seems like it's growing in popularity in every corner of the political spectrum, too. The anarchists definitely subscribe to this, and attribute this fall from grace to the rise of centralized governments. The Marxists probably believe this too; if all of human nature and interaction derives from material conditions, then the economy circa 50,000 BC required far too much cooperation in labor-intensive subsistence activities like hunting woolly mammoths for people to just kill each other willy-nilly. Even the equal-and-opposite "return to tradition" reactionaries, believing in strong tribal/ethnic bonds and gender roles, also agree that we derive from some Edenesque origin.
I don't think there's a better antithesis to such an idea than Blood Meridian. Maybe Lord of the Flies, but nothing drives home the idea of humanity's innate evil quite like reading descriptions of people getting stabbed, scalped, or shot for 350 pages.
In case this post has been a bit too much of a bummer, I'll leave you with a comic that made me chuckle.