The movie adaptation of The Road will soon bring a fresh round of attention to Cormac McCarthy’s body of work, and many will find his post-apocalyptic vision too much of a grim, ashen slog. For those people, Blood Meridian may or may not be worth recommending.
On the one hand, McCarthy’s fictionalized portrayal of the scalp-hunting Glanton Gang is certainly more action-packed, teeming with mid-1800s massacres and atrocities on the US-Mexico border. On the other hand, Blood Meridian takes its own toll, its horrors coming at you in wave after unrelenting wave even as they’re told in language that ranges from austere to florid, but always beautiful.
Reportedly, Blood Meridian will also be turned into a film, raising inevitable questions among the book’s fans: “How on God’s green Earth could you ever pull off such an unrelenting depiction of the Gates of Hell opening straight into men’s hearts? Who could possibly play Judge Holden, a hairless seven-foot-tall giant whose formidable intelligence is matched only by his vile desires as a murderous pedophile?”
Blood Meridian can be a daunting book, even if you’re able to withstand a chain of events where not even animals or children are safe. The overriding question of “What makes a person participate in such inhumanity?” isn’t helped by the book’s protagonist, the Kid. The teenaged Kid is a cipher, seemingly content to be cast from event to event by whatever evil winds blow the Glanton Gang along, and whatever glimmers of conscience he suffers are slow in coming.
The Glanton Gang is full of stories, but the group’s willing slide into depravity isn’t necessarily answered by any of the tales told around their campfires. And by and large, it certainly isn’t conscience that leads to the group’s downfall, but rather the accumulating consequences of their actions. Still, Blood Meridian is an exhilarating and visceral read, thanks to the beauty of McCarthy’s unadorned style and vivid characters like Judge Holden.
Ben Nichols (the lead singer of indie/alt-country band Lucero) has obviously caught the Blood Meridian bug. His recent solo EP, The Last Pale Light in the West (alluding to the book’s subtitle, Or the Evening Redness in the West), offers seven songs based on the book, looking at the backstories of several characters, and even giving the Judge his typically charismatic say.
It’s a surprisingly nimble disc, given that Lucero usually opts for a bludgeoning guitar assault. Here, Nichols straps on an acoustic guitar for rootsy arrangements that feature flourishes of pedal steel, accordion, or piano. Quite frankly, it’s a recipe that Lucero could stand to make use of a little more often.
Nichols’ voice, a dry rasp, is a perfect complement to these dusty tales. And like McCarthy’s prose, Nichols’ arrangements don’t turn morose in the face of the book’s events. These are songs that range from delicate to spry, but they’re never too heavy for the listener to bear.
But it’s Nichols’ words, which can often get lost in the midst of Lucero’s raucous delivery, that really bring this project home. It’s tempting to say that The Last Pale Light in the West is like Richard Buckner’s The Hill, but Buckner was content to put Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poems to music, with little or no changes.
Here, Nichols crafts his own short stories, monologues, and conversations from the whole cloth of McCarthy’s fiction. He sets the tone in the title track, intoning, “In my hands I hold the ashes / In my veins black pitch runs / In my chest the fire catches / In my way a setting sun”. In his use of Holden as narrator for “The Kid”, taking place not at the book’s beginning but at its end, Nichols has the judge reciting the Kid’s life story, offering in the chorus, “Kid don’t you know me? / We are the last of the true / Drink up! Drink up! / Cause tonight your soul’s required of you”.
To those who know the book, it’s a chilling summary of the Judge’s knack for appealing to a sense of duty and pride and honor that he all too easily twists into evil. The judge is nothing if not highly intelligent and calculating, his every word like a locksmith’s tools working at the hidden tumblers of a man’s soul. Like hired killer Anton Chigurh in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Holden possesses dark moral clarity among men who are conflicted—and thus slower and less resolute. So it’s no wonder that Holden figures prominently in at least one other tale.
“Tobin” is blunt, in that economical and direct way of McCarthy’s characters, about how he ended up a murderer: “I done some preachin’ back in Texas before the war / Now I hunt heathens ‘cause it pays better than the Lord / I ride with Demons, the Devil at my side”. For his part, “Davy Brown” is a man so far gone into evil that he “don’t believe in Hell / But he figures somehow / Even if it’s real / It’s gonna spit him back out”.
“Chambers” tells quite a different story, of a veteran who just wants to get back to his lost love in Mexico, and attempts to use a job in Glanton’s gang as a means of returning. “Toadvine” finds a man simply running out of country, if not physically, then at least spiritually.
It’s notable that Nichols, by giving voice to these lost souls, doesn’t settle into the flashier tale of the Kid and the Judge for most of the record. Participation in Glanton’s gang basically signs away the last scraps of a man’s soul, and each man has a different reason for being there.
In the case of Chambers, Tobin, and Toadvine, Nichols actually makes us feel some sympathy for these killers. McCarthy’s own depiction of these characters offers little room for an emotional pull, so it’s no small feat that Nichols can make their stories so poignant.
But their tales, whether they mention him specifically or not, often revolve around the Judge, and for good reason. I’m always tempted to think of Judge Holden as the physical incarnation of the Devil, although there’s not even a sliver of the supernatural anywhere to be found in Blood Meridian (or any other McCarthy novel that I’ve read, for that matter). Granted, McCarthy seems to leave clues in this direction—the way every member of Glanton’s gang had met the Judge prior to joining, the way Holden seems intent on claiming his own, and even his fiddle-playing and small feet—but these could just as easily be red herrings.
The characters around him, at least in Nichols’ hands, have no such hesitation. “Judge Holden is the devil”, claims “Tobin”, “his Hell this Mexico”. “Toadvine” concludes that “the preacher’s lesson / Is simply Armageddon / The devil he knows how to ride”.
Nichols’ tribute ends with “The Judge”, and my initial reaction was to be disappointed that it was an instrumental. But then I realized that Holden had gotten plenty of say in “The Kid”, plying the Kid and us with his declarations of war as a glorious art, as a sacred calling. And it made sense—and seemed fitting—that Holden’s words wouldn’t walk us out of the record.
He’s the dark presence in every other song, and as The Last Pale Light in the West fades out on ominous cascades of guitar, you remember that the Judge is always out there, sitting on a rock somewhere along our path, waiting to bring someone new into the fold.