“It howled execration upon the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor.”
The wailed execration, of course, comes from the lungs of a newborn baby, snatched from its sleeping mother by its own father, Culla Holme—who’s also, ahem, the infant’s uncle—and left to die in a cottonwood glade as a furious storm rages. Before Culla flees, a “crack of lightening” reveals to the murderous young dad a haunting vision of “the shapeless white plasm struggling upon the rich and incunabular moss,” a “boneless cognate of his heart’s dread.”
Such ends cheerful chapter one of Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, set, like his other early works, in the “mean country” of Appalachia. It’s so much fun to read McCarthy, but only if you enjoy gothic lit—archetypes, Biblical motifs/allusions, incest, murder, characters cast into the “outer dark” and on the move (seeking, hiding, fleeing—central McCarthy conceits). The novel also offers these delights: a mysterious, unnamed evil man and his two creepy cohorts; hanged men in trees, swaying in the hot wind; a drooling mute; a lonely and crooked tinker; a horse attack; a pig stampede; and, as usual, a “grotesque hero bobbing harried and unwilling” among all this chaos, in this story the sister, Rinthy Holme, who searches ceaselessly and tragically for her lost child, “paps” painfully swollen and leaking milk.
Oh, and Outer Dark also offers a deadly resolution not quite worthy of Blood Meridian’s horrifying finale, but brutal and essential none-the-less. You see, Holme did a very bad thing—well, at least two very bad things—and he must pay for his transgressions. Guilt casts a relentless dark shadow over him; everywhere he travels, he’s accused of some random crime and must run for his life. Thusly tormented by the curse of his sins, he tries to both escape from and confront his horrible deeds, deeds embodied by the mysterious, wandering bearded bad man, whose fires in the darkness draw in Holme like an unsuspecting moth.