Monday, June 11, 2012

Wordcraft -- McCarthy's six-gun gothic

(Today’s guest blogger, Dallas-area writer Jim Dolan, discusses the Gothic elements in the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country for Old Men, among other works. Jim Dolan is a prize winning poet, a fiction writer, moderator of Writer's Garrett Stone Soup All Genres group in Dallas, occasional film actor, a psychotherapist in private practice and passionate bicycle racer. He is a lifelong resident of Oak Cliff Texas, where he lives with his wife, Karen. He regularly blogs at )

When I first discovered McCarthy in the early 90s it was by reading All the Pretty Horses. I had not had a prose reading experience like that since discovering Vladimir Nabokov when I was much younger- a sense of envelopment in prose that was sensual, almost tactile, like eating chocolate or the best focaccia bread with red wine. I discovered that my pleasure in the text was multi-leveled through an engagement with character, setting and story but also through the encounter with the palpable qualities of the language itself. I completely believe that McCarthy's abilities with English are Shakespearian. But I mention this as a way of saying that All the Pretty Horses began a two decade engagement for me with everything McCarthy has written, some titles two or even three times through.

I recently led a panel discussion for the Writer's Garrett where we discussed his Western novels. The point of the discussion was to see if we could establish why it is that these texts are frequently referred to as Gothic. Of course, I had to go and find out what elements are present in the classic European Gothic texts, and discovered the following:

-- An ancient castle, an old manor, a family home is occupied by the protagonist's generation and is in disrepair; there are unexplained events that happen in the environs

-- The supernatural is presented or implied

-- The supernatural occurrences are related to an ancient curse upon the family, stemming from some massive wrong-doing long ago

-- There is a mood of horror, menace, dread

-- The grotesque is front and center

-- An absolute concern with good vs. evil, with evil the likely winner.

Looking at the McCarthy Western novels through the Gothic lens, we can see that the Border Trilogy is really just good old fashioned Western Romance told in divine prose. We can take those out of the discussion. This leaves us with Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. Today, I’ll apply the first three Gothic criteria -- an ancient home, the supernatural, and a curse stemming from massive wrong-doing.

In Blood Meridian we are presented with a novel unlike any before or since, an unending bloodbath with no detectable moral center, something No Country for Old Men does possess in the character of the Sheriff. Do these two qualify as Gothics? I think so. We can begin by substituting the Old West for the ancient house in which the spirits of the dead shriek for revenge in the persons of the Comanche Hordes come to slaughter Captain White's platoon beginning on page 51 of Blood Meridian. In No Country for Old Men, Moss has penetrated the mystery house of Mexico and stolen $2 million from the scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Again, cause for an exacting revenge, in the person of Chigurh, the vastly more powerful counterpoint to the waning Sheriff.

(Next week: Guest blogger Jim Dolan continues his discussion of the Gothic in Cormac McCarthy’s fiction, with the criteria of horror, menace and dread. Leave a light on!)

No comments:

Post a Comment