A few years ago I read and was deeply moved by The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It was a very unusual work with flaws, but also a eerily reverent power and strong, nearly Biblical language and imagery. But that was my first McCarthy, and fellow writers kept telling me it wasn’t typical, and I had to tackle his real classics. So I’m currently in the middle of what is considered to be one of his best works, Blood Meridian.
As I was warned, Blood Meridian is bloody. It is full of atrocities such as casual scalpings, brutal massacres, and jail-cell or wartime torture. What is most disturbing about this violence, though, is how it’s treated; McCarthy’s style is the definition of hard-boiled, and every midnight-black event is presented baldly, free of emotion or judgment. Our main character, the Kid, seems unaffected by all that he sees, merely trying to survive, wandering from one bloody clash to the next. So what is McCarthy trying to say about violence? He might be arguing that it is fundamental to the human condition, which is a compelling point. But more than that, he might be arguing that there is something purifying, something redemptive, something deeply cleansing about being washed in blood.
The review on the cover of my copy says it all: according to critic Michael Herr, Blood Meridian is “A classic American novel of regeneration through violence.” I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m wondering — what does he mean by that? Could McCarthy be arguing the unthinkable — that we need violence to be fully human?
It’s a deeply troubling question, but one that I’m glad McCarthy is raising. Other novelists who indulge in violence are usually repugnant to me because they present it as a kind of pornography, eroticizing the violence, tying it firmly to a deep-seated hatred or fear of women. That may come later, but from what I’ve seen so far, McCarthy isn’t marrying violence with sexuality or arguing that women have no place in his world. His story is about men, but it is an historical tale, and the violence is not eroticized. It is, instead, simply what it is: brutal, often purposeless, often strangely fascinating.
How to handle violence yourself
Regardless of how it might seem, we live in a less violent world than humans have ever inhabited before. Violence is slowly getting stamped out of our DNA, first becoming shameful, then becoming dirty, finally, possibly, becoming evil once and for all. But in fiction, violent acts will always be powerful and evocative. They have a way of clarifying things by forcing characters to make hard choices. Violence has a way of finally making the sides well-defined and the heroes and villains more obvious. In that way, violence can “redeem” a story, finally blowing away the smoke.
So how will you write about violence in your stories? Will you avoid it on principle, or will you take a test swim in McCarthy’s dark waters? Adding violence easily heightens the stakes of your story; but I urge you to avoid the easy pitfalls I mentioned earlier. Don’t eroticize violence; don’t assume that some people deserve to bear its brunt; don’t let characters become less than human. Violence has a nasty way of turning us into less than our true selves. I’m willing to read McCarthy, though, and see how oddly attractive violence can be, in its ability to make the line between choices and consequences so stark.