Outer Dark is Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, set in his native southern America and published in 1968, and it is certainly a product of its time and place. Reading this compendium of southern gothicry, it is as though William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor never died: the gargoyles are back in their blackened landscapes, gurning their way through a fractured, tortured existence, while God is in his isolated splendour watching the fall and fall and fall of man. If that sounds unduly dismissive, let me say that this may be McCarthy’s finest work; and it is certainly the one which is most important in terms of finding a way into the opaque world of this most peculiar author.
The basic plot is, as usual with McCarthy, pretty sparse. It opens with the incestuous birth of a child to brother and sister, Culla and Rinthy Holme. Culla is embarrassed by the birth, won’t allow anyone else to be present for it, and once the child is born he takes it into the woods and abandons it, telling his sister only that it was poorly and died. The child is subsequently found and taken by a tinker and Rinthy, not believing her brother’ story, sets out in search of it. Culla then sets of in search of her. Their respective quests are chronicled through the novel. In the case of Rinthy, in each meeting she finds hospitality and friendship. Culla, on the other hand, finds animosity and suspicion, is taken advantage of, is accused of crimes he has not committed, is robbed, and generally he struggles to exist.
Perhaps in pursuit, perhaps simply traversing this god-forsaken country for themselves, three strange, unexplained men or creatures weave in and out of the story, coming ever closer to the couple and their benighted child, until ultimately – this being Cormac McCarthy – there is a bloody and brutal (and largely unexplained) conclusion.
Dan Geddes calls Outer Dark a world ‘devoid of God’, but this is a fundamental misinterpretation of McCarthy’s position, one that is consistently, if understandably made of his oeuvre. God is indeed largely absent in this novel, but that is by no means the same as saying the novel is devoid of his presence: on the contrary, God is a brooding, troubled, troublesome presence throughout this novel precisely because of his continued and high-profile absence. Even when he does feature, for example when a storekeeper refuses to serve Holme because, ‘We still christians here. You’ll have to come back a weekday,’ it serves only to amplify the godlessness of the main characters: immediately following this reverse, Holme is seen, ‘sat on a stone by the side of the road and with a dead stick [he] drew outlandish symbols in the dust.’ Meanwhile, a kindly woman asks Holme’s sister, Rinthy, ‘I don’t believe you been saved have ye?’ What we have, then, is a world of darkness, where morality is compromised and God is unkown and unknowable. The scene is set in the opening paragraphs, brooding and dark:
She shook him awake into the quiet darkness... She shook him awake from dark to dark, delivered out of the clamorous rabble under a black sun...
Once established, throughout this novel the darkness never ceases. We have ‘sunless’ woods, dark roads and cottages, blackness, death. Rinthy is described, ‘poised between the maw of the dead and loveless house and the outer dark like a frail thief.’ Outer Dark itself, of course, is a biblical reference, from Matthew 25:30 (‘And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’). This, then, is a very metaphysical darkness. Near the end, the tinker tells Rinthy: ‘Hard people makes hard times. I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.’ And this darkness is taken to its logical extreme with several references to blindness, that standard Southern Gothic trope for godlessness and lack of grace. In what could almost be a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, one character says:
In a world darksome as this’n I believe a blind man ort to be better sighted than most. I believe it’s got a good deal to recommend it. The grace of God don’t rest easy on a man. It can blind him easy as not.
Thus, although God is absent from the pages of this novel, it can be seen that his spirit most certainly is not. In later years, we are told, Holme ‘used to meet a blind man, ragged and serene, who spoke him a good day out of his constant dark.’ This blind man, the personification of a ‘prophet’ seen by Holme in a dream at the beginning of the book (and clearly, also, an early version of Ely in The Road), debates his blindness. ‘What needs a man to see his way when he’s sent there anyhow?’ he asks Holme. Hazel Motes, in his quiet room, could only have nodded blindly in agreement.
Christopher Metress elaborates on this element, describing it as a ‘nothingness’ at the novel’s centre. This he likens to a via negativa, a way of coming to know God through contemplating nothingness, through an examination of unknowing, through thinking of what God is not, rather than what he is. Thus, God is shrouded in darkness. This is very different from Geddes’s view that Outer Dark is ‘devoid of God.’ In this theory, God certainly exists, but man cannot comprehend his mystery. For some characters in the novel, this is sufficient. An old man to whom Holme goes for shelter, for example, someone who ‘wouldn’t turn Satan away’, suggests, ‘Even a snake ain’t all bad. They’s put here fore some purpose. I believe they’s a purpose to everything.’
Holme, however, cannot see, and chooses not to. ‘I ain’t never much studied it,’ he replies. Thus, throughout the novel, in his rejection of attempts to understand he becomes increasingly embroiled in events that seem to gather around him in ever more chaotic and dangerous ways. He works – works hard – but never sees any reward. He is blamed when things go wrong – most catastrophically when the pigs being droved take fright and stampede over a cliff (another reference to the gospel of Matthew). Indeed, as he traverses the Appalachian countryside Holme is stalked by death, leaving behind him a trail of destruction. This is the unknown, unknowing God at work, and yet Culla is completely oblivious of it. So too is his sister, blithely passing through in her search for her child, incognisant of the goodness that attends her. We know not what we do, McCarthy is telling us.
As a message, this could almost be palatable. The concept of an omniscient but detached deity is commonly understood and, indeed, typical atheistic questions about ‘how a god could allow evil things to happen’ are every bit as facile as the unthinking veneration they purport to criticise. But McCarthy’s god is not as detached as it appears, and nor are McCarthy’s humans as free of will as might be supposed. Leo Daugherty has written persuasively about the gnostic tendencies of McCarthy’s writing, particularly in Blood Meridian. Outer Dark, too, shows traces of gnosticism, with its seeming contention that there is evil abroad, an evil that, inescapably, surrounds everything that happens to this brother and sister and the tinker and the child. In so doing, McCarthy descends into mysticism, with the three strange travellers who track their way through the book, wreaking some form of vengeance on everyone with whom they come into contact. They are described in typically elliptical fashion, so one is never quite sure who or what they are. Indeed, at one stage McCarthy even describes them as ‘parodic’, suggesting he is perhaps playing with his readers in much the way that his most famous character, Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, might. Elsewhere, they attract more mythic description: ‘Like revenants that reoccur in lands laid waste with fever: spectral, palpable as stone.’ So there they are, warriors across time, wanderers through destruction, the messengers, perhaps, of the gods. Rich and inventive mythologising, some might argue; cheap pyrotechnics, others might counter.
But, in the end, these three figures are meaningless. They seem to inhabit the novel specifically to invest it with some immutable strangeness, to suggest that this novel – which is, at heart, a simple story of incest and love – is somehow speaking of greater things, telling deeper truths. It is easy to become seduced by McCarthy’s extraordinary prose, and to accept the mystery of these beings. But, in the end, they are mere, unthinking automatons. They fulfil precisely the same function as Chugurh in No Country For Old Men or the Glanton gang in Blood Meridian, or the cannibals of The Road: they represent the innate evil of humanity and the world – that, after all, being in gnostic terms the outcome of our Fall – the inability of man to achieve redemption, the impossibility of knowing God.
But again, like Flannery O’Connor before him, what McCarthy does is simply to create cartoons and caricatures. There is no emotional depth here. People die. There is suffering, pain. None of these characters exist, other than as vehicles for a message. For all the brilliance of McCarthy’s words, for all the metaphysical truth he wishes to impart, because of the shallowness of his approach, ultimately he says nothing of any consequence.
[References removed to deter plagiarism. If you wish to know a specific reference, email me and let me know.]