One of the highest honors that can be bestowed on an author is the Pulitzer Prize. It, much like many awards spanning different arts doesn’t necessarily fully encapsulate the work or necessarily the cultural impact of an author, many popular, and often brilliant authors fail to even get nominated. But in 2007 Cormac McCarthy ascended to one of the few to hold the reward with his hauntingly bleak novel The Road. Though it is nowhere near my favorite novel penned by the Rhode Island native it did instill a thought within me to reflect on one thing McCarthy does brilliantly, write villains. Outside of The Road (which was a flopped movie) McCarthy has written a few other novels of acclaim. Blood Meridian, All The Pretty Horses, and his most successful film adaptation No Country For Old Men.
Even with his impressive catalog two of his works stand out to me simply because of their antagonist. Individuals that often feel like a horrific force of nature instead of actual human beings, people who feel as if they have checks only for McCarthy to (often expertly) counter that notion making the characters feel that much more hostile and terrifying. I think the simplest of these to note is from the before-mentioned Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men, Judge Holden, and Anton Chigurh. Now for any that has yet to read either of those two novels, the gist of them is this. No Country For Old Men is narrated by a Sheriff in west Texas, a man who decides he may be too old for his job if you will. Within this narration a constitute of his, a welder named Llewelyn Moss, while hunting stumbles upon a scene of death and destruction in an isolated location. Among the destruction is finds a truck full of heroin as well as a bag full of money which he takes. This action is answered by the owners of the money-hiring hitman Anton Chigurh, a ruthless efficient psychopath to track down the cash and recover it setting up the main plot of the book. Blood Meridian on the other hand has no real true ‘good guy’ as it follows The Kid. The Kid was born in Tennessee to a not-so-savory father. After running west he finds himself within the thralls of the Glanton Gang, a group paid by the Mexican government to kill indigenous people. Even in this world of unchecked violence and debauchery another member of the gang, a Judge who usually just goes by “The Judge” is a special type of monster as the story through The Kid’s eyes plays out.
Now what I really admire about these two is how well they play into McCarthy’s narration style. There is no point in hiding the fact he is one of my favorite authors, I have never found myself reading a story of his and not being completely absorbed in the work. But being as objective as I can be, McCarthy has a very simple, nearly stripped-dry prose that leaves only the absolutely necessary words and punctuation to carry the story along. It is often coined as dreamlike and the dialogue is equally cut and dry. Here is one interaction between the main protagonists of The Road a father and his son.
“You have to carry the fire.”
I don’t know how to.”
Yes, you do.”
Is the fire real? The fire?”
Yes it is.”
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
This type of repetitive and often blunt speech is common among most of McCarthy’s work, readers often see Anton and The Judge speak in absolutes, even when the laws of the world seem to deny their possibilities. He created villains that often defy logic, how can someone be this vile? This talented at the art of depravity? How does one justify their actions when they go well beyond any moral implications?
With this in mind, I first want to look at Anton Chigurh and what exactly set’s him apart from others that may fill that role. Readers first get wind of him after Moss takes the money and returns to the scene later only to be confronted by the cartel and abandon his truck. In this scene Anton is standing with his presumed employer’s men, this is in question at the time because by the end of the scene he kills both men before stealing their truck. It is often up in the air through most of the story who Anton actually works for because of this action very early on in the book. His wanton killing of both the men in the beginning and members of the Mexican cartel as he is tracking Moss down can be rather confusing but just plays more into how unhinged Anton is. About midway, his employers admit that the men at the start were theirs and Anton is off the leash so they hire a retired officer Carson Wells to reel him in. This is the first and only check to Anton throughout the book. Suddenly, nearly halfway through the book the tempest that is Anton Chigurh seems to make sense, he’s a top-tier hitman that was never in question but suddenly the reader is confronted with he may not be the best. This quite abruptly is nipped right away as Carson gets ambushed in his hotel by Anton after his first scrap with Moss, ending in Carson’s death. It is in this I truly think the beauty of McCarthy’s story craft shines, as I mentioned it is the first time there seems to be any possible chance that this ends well for Moss, that there is this fire alarm he can pull to call this rabid killer off. But alas, there isn’t his fate sealed from the first page.
A similar moment of dread happens in Blood Meridian as well but the circumstances happen in a very different way. The Judge through most of the book, even with his pedophilic murdering ways is always seen in the context of the Glanton gang. He is a member of the same troop as The Kid so even though he is the vilest creature on the earth (and possibly one of the vilest in all of storytelling) but this is told through the window that he is, more or less, on the same side as The Kid and though clearly dangerous and blight in his own right is buffered by this assumed (false) alliance that he has with The Kid. Naturally, this visage is destroyed when The Judge turns that aggression towards The Kid after the gang was slaughtered, suddenly this torrent of death that had been adjacent to the reader wasn’t and we are forced to confront just how truly awful it all had been.
It is these often subtle events that build up the antagonist of McCarthy’s stories to be some of the most frightening I have ever personally read. Making it something that I often consider while crafting characters for my own stories. At the time of writing this McCarthy has just released his first book since The Road, The Passenger (he must be on his ‘The’ arc) and as someone who just purchased a copy of it, I am sure you will be seeing some sort of post about it soon.
Let me know what your thoughts are on McCarthy or have any authors you believe do villains particularly well as always thanks for the read!