Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s haunting Western

The genius of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is how starkly the book details its violence while leaving so much to the reader’s imagination. It tells the story of the Kid, a runaway who joins up with the barbarous Glanton gang on its trek into 1840’s Mexican-United States border country in search of Apache scalps that they collect for bounty.

Their pathway of their venture, or its meridian, spills with blood, focusing less on where they’re headed than on what they’re escaping. They ride the desert under a merciless sun, through thrashing blizzards, and inside of torrential rain storms while laying waste to all before them.

McCarthy details the journey in language that is exact, yet leaves us questioning. The horror spells out meticulously while at the same time forcing the reader to wonder if it’s real or supernatural. Glanton’s gang kills with nonchalance more than blood lust. In fact, the book’s horror often comes from how casually the men go about their task and how dispassionately they reflect on what they’re doing.

Here’s a passage simply referred to as A Village Decimated.

The next town they entered was two days deeper into the sierras. They never knew what it was called. A collection of mud huts pitched on a naked plateau. As they rode in the people ran before them like harried game. Their cries to one another or perhaps the visible fraility of them seemed to incite something in Glanton. Brown watched him. He nudged forth his horse and drew his pistol and this somnolent pueblo was forthwith dragooned into a weltering shambles. Many of the people had been running toward the church where they knelt clutching the altar and from this refuge they were dragged howling one by one and one by one they were slain and scalped in the chancel floor. When the riders passed through this same village four days later the dead were still in the streets and buzzards and pigs were feeding on them. The scavengers watched in silence while the company picked their way past like supernumeraries in a dream. When the last of them were gone they commenced to feed again.

This sort of supernatural feel pervades the book, giving it an eerie, haunting sense of confusion. It’s all very specific in detail. And yet it’s a bit mysterious, too. Who started this killing—Glanton or Brown? The violence occurs wordlessly, as if a spell descends on the gang as they pull the innocent from their church to scalp. The sentences are lengthy, pulling the reader breathlessly deeper into the imagery. Weird grammer (i.e, a weltering shambles) and million dollar words (supernumeraries) sprinkle throughout the book. The reader feels lost in time as these same riders pass through four days later seeing the aftermath of their destruction, while preying demons feed on their dead while watching the riders, as if in a dream.

There’s a wicked religiosity to Blood Meridian. An unspoken force behind its savagery? Glanton’s a killer, yes. And his men are lost and crawling starved through a vast wasteland pursued by Mexican armies and Apache warriors. An unspoken evil defines their collective souls, and that evil is Judge Holden, Glanton’s adopted co-captain and alter ego in the violence. The Judge is the dark soul inside Glanton with whom he confers and confides. A hidden specter haunting the book’s pages by disguising himself in plain sight while driving the story’s  depravity.

The Judge is no Judge

We think of judges as impartial arbiters between two sides in a dispute. Judge Holden is anything but. As Judge, he comes across more like an angry, Old Testament God. He judges worthiness, not right or wrong. He behaves like the Creator force behind all evil. As he explains in one passage, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”

The Omnipresent Judge

He is the enemy who stays in pursuit. The man who doesn’t die. Even though Blood Meridian is the Kid’s story, and even though the Kid does not enlist with Glanton’s gang until about a quarter of the way into the novel, he encounters the Judge in the opening pages. At a tent revival in Nacogdoches, Texas the Judge enters to get out of a drenching rain, shaking the damp off himself and whipping up the congregation to lynch the revival’s young preacher, whom the Judge swears he knows for a fact is a pederast. As the mob descends on the holy man, the Kid escapes and heads for a bar, where he immediately meets the Judge once more, who is now perfectly dry and buying rounds for the crowd, proclaiming he never before had seen nor heard of the preacher. They all share a laugh over the poor man’s fate. Holiness cast asunder by a more powerful titan. That’s what Blood Meridian is about.

Soon after this episode the Judge disappears from the Kid’s story, only to re-emerge much later with Glanton and his gang, as if these many pages he’s been laying in wait for the Kid. Throughout the telling of the story in a bit of time twisting and place shifting, the Judge continues to disappear and show up like this. He spouts philosophy and lessons in geology and proclamations he holds true. Even when absent, the Judge is the life force driving Blood Meridian forward.

The Judge as Demon Manipulator, a Vampire of Death

Where the Judge comes from nobody knows, as the story tells us. He stands near seven feet tall, is bald, with no hair where there should be eyelashes and brows. He is a heavy man, with hands the size of a child’s and skin so white it appears translucent. A childlike giant. Fierce innocence. A contradiction. He has a habit of riding the desert and moving about camp completely naked. The innocent pervert.

There is a scene early in the book when the Kid and his traveling partner Sproule are sleeping at night  in the desert. The injured Sproule awakes to find himself being fed on by an attacking vampire. Could this be the Judge?

The Judge knows many languages, and he alone in Glanton’s gang has traveled to Europe. He is a botanist collecting desert flower samples that he presses in his notebook. He records drawings of the desert’s geology. He can produce gun powder from a man’s piss. Yet everything he draws or writes down he erases. Just as Glanton thirsts to erase Apaches. Just as the breadth of history and the vastness of landscape erases man. Or at least his significance. Just as the women and children the Judge seduces all wind up dead. Like the puppies the Judge buys from a Mexican boy to throw in the river and drown.

All life is insignificant. It’s just a life force that flows in our blood, and that eventually will violently spill out of us.

It is the Judge who convinces the Kid to join up with Glanton. Similarly, the Judge cajoles most of the book’s characters into self-destruction. Toward the end of Blood Meridian, he buys an imbecile from a carnival barker and then leads his imbecile through the desert on a leash. later. the imbecile disappears without explanation. That’s the hold the Judge has on the world. He is our fate. He is our destruction. Our blood and life force waiting to escape and die.

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