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A Surprisingly Therapeutic Reading of Cormac McCarthy

April 14th, 2022 | 15 min read

By Zach Hollifield

A global pandemic claiming millions of lives. An invasion of the largest European nation besides the one invading it resulting in the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of civilians including children. The countless “micro” and mundane atrocities we ourselves experience and witness in our daily lives.

Everywhere we turn, we are surrounded by horrors of one kind or another. Some seemingly larger, all desperately heavy, at times threatening to topple us. How is one to deal with this brutal reality? How do we wade our way through such suffocating chaos?

I have a proposal: read more Cormac McCarthy.

Admittedly, for most of us going through the ringer of life, reading novels that push further the boundary lines of what one thought was “horrific” seems like the last thing one ought to do. And to be sure, this is exactly what McCarthy’s novels do. McCarthy is well at home among other authors of the dark, distressing, and demented such as Flannery O’Conner. His novels stretch one’s imaginations to places one had previously assumed unimaginable and ones likely never to have been visited on one’s own.

Why then would McCarthy be worth reading in times of global and personal agony? How might reading an author whose works include the characters and scenarios and plot lines of bad dreams serve a therapeutic function for those experiencing their worst nightmares?

The Therapy of Truth Telling

This past Advent, I read through Fleming Rutledge’s wonderful, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ in which she argues that Cormac McCarthy is the best writer to read during the book’s namesake season. And so, not being a fool, I took her advice. Doing so has launched me into a near obsession with McCarthy. One reason is that his prose carries the unique ability to world craft without the reader realizing that’s exactly what’s going on. Just take this example from what many hold to be his masterpiece, Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West:

In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more unshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships (Blood Meridian, 261).[1]

But McCarthy is far and away best known for another aspect of his writing: his depraved depictions of the world and the gruesome violence pervading the whole of it. To open a McCarthy novel is to enter a world where every last thing has gone utterly awry on a variety of levels. Even babies, typically the agreed upon line-not-crossed as victims of graphic violence, are not spared bloodshed. While this furthest of sordid offenses only occurs briefly and in just a few of his novels,[2] they all are awash in the bleak and malevolent.

One immediately thinks of his best known novel, The Road, where a father and son trek through a post-armageddon-like landscape for some kind of sanctuary in the wasteland. There is Outer Dark, in which (reader discretion advised) the incestuous child of a brother and sister is buried in the woods and left to die by the brother/father, only to be found by a traveling “tinker” which sets the sister/mother off on a hunt for the child and the brother off on a hunt for her.

Then there is, No Country for Old Men, which holds its own for the amount of violence it contains but also has the added factor of being written as a screenplay and is therefore almost entirely dialogue which gives the reader the sensation of pulled along for 300+ pages at breakneck speed, hand over their eyes peeking through their fingers at what’s coming next. As a final case study, Blood Meridian is by far his most consistently violent work (which is saying something!) as a traveling pack of renegades chases down a native tribe for reward. The havoc they wreak along the way and the mastery of language with which McCarthy describes it is truly something to behold. Here is just a taste of what the reader finds throughout the book which does not let up until one closes the back cover (fair warning: it is quite graphic):

Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of bone flutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandy-legged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows (Blood Meridian, 56-57).

To read McCarthy is to read violence manifested in ink. And yet, that is exactly why Rutledge argues he is not only worth reading but a gift to read.[3] And I agree with her wholeheartedly. In a peculiar way, McCarthy’s writing has ministered to me with all the common grace I believe such a spiritually agnostic author could muster. How can this be when their primary strength is found in their being gratuitously grim?

Rutledge believes it is because McCarthy describes the actual world we live in.[4] To be fair, the violence in his novels at times can seem over the top, and for some readers this makes his works feel unrealistic. And yet, any amount of time spent watching the news or googling public criminal reports[5] will suffice to show that, in fact, McCarthy’s depictions of horrific violence are only as hyperbolic as the real world.[6]

McCarthy is not attempting to make the world out to be worse than it truly is. He does not want to shock in that sense. Rather, he aims to present the world in all its horrible violence as fairly and accurately as possible.[7] McCarthy is not a harbinger of the further moral decay of society–trying to warn us before we head off the cliff. It is too late for that in McCarthy’s view.

No, McCarthy is a prophet. But whereas most prophets proclaim knowledge of future destruction, McCarthy’s prophecies are far more humble and honest. McCarthian prophecy is prophecy of our current state of affairs, of our present destruction. Rather than point to what is coming, he presses the reader’s face to look at what has come, what is upon us now. The brutality McCarthy is concerned with is not far off and looming, but close up and here already. The shoe has dropped in McCarthy’s view and there is no going back.

While at first this might seem like the last thing a sufferer would benefit from reading, Rutledge says it is exactly what the doctor ordered and precisely because it is the honest estimate of our situation and nothing but honesty can lead us to hope.[8] This honesty serves a positive purpose for those suffering. It looks them in the eyes, and instead of saying, “Chin up, kid, it can’t all be that bad can it?”, it acknowledges that it is just as bad as that, maybe even worse, or, at the very least, sure feels like it.

This stark honesty about the evil that befalls us may, to our surprise, offer consolation.

In his book, God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of this World, Scott Harrower argues that this is exactly how stories serve those experiencing horrors. “Stories yield both objective and subjective knowledge in the form of personal perspectives that respond to problems generated by horrors.”[9] In other words, stories have interpretive power. Harrower points out that it is an accepted fact within trauma studies that trauma produces a kind of “trauma hermeneutic” in the traumatized. It creates lenses through which the world is unavoidably viewed. While Harrower prefers the term, “horror reading” to trauma hermeneutic, his point is that “what makes life after trauma unique is that the unconscious processing of a trauma or traumas shapes the way in which information about the world is interpreted. Trauma thus forms a point of view from which individual and corporate life is interpreted.”[10]

Stories which include the horrific, or “paranoid narratives,” then, “will very likely resonate with a trauma survivor…The consequences of this are that it generates and cements the normativity of the violent or traumatic worldview.” What’s more, “trauma scholars suggest that not only is a paranoid reading the default for a trauma survivor, but it is also an appropriate interpretative approach in order to sensitively reckon with trauma.”[11]

The horrific (apparently) heals.

If I may enlist another artistic masterpiece to help make the point, there is a scene in “Downton Abbey” where Lady Mary’s husband has died and she has yet to make any progress in healing from the loss in six months. While this is understandable to a degree, the fact is that her grief is causing her to neglect and more or less reject her son (who was born literally right before the accident). The family is obviously concerned but have different ideas on how to help her. Her father, Lord Grantham, wants to distract her with anything but the reality of the gapping hole in her life. But the Dowager Countess, Mary’s grandmother and Lord Grantham’s mother, believes exactly the opposite. After she speaks with Mary, the Dowager Countess has a brief conversation with Lord Grantham about Mary’s state:

Lord Grantham: You must forgive Mary (for being rude at dinner).
Dowager Countess: I do forgive her.
Lord Grantham: She is broken and bruised and it is our job to wrap her up and keep her safe from the world.
Dowager Countess (sharply): No, Robert. It is our job to bring her back to the world.
Lord Grantham: I’m afraid that is not how I see it.
Dowager Countess: Really? Then I can only say that while I will overlook Mary’s poor judgment, I find it hard to overlook yours. Goodnight.

Lord Grantham’s remedy is healing-by-shielding, the Dowager Countess’ is therapy-by-staring. Lord Grantham believes what Lady Mary needs is exactly not to focus on the horror of the loss. The Dowager Countess knows with the wisdom of a lifetime that only by staring the loss in the face and reckoning with it for what it is can Mary ever begin to heal.

There is most certainly a time and place for the kind of remedy Lord Grantham wants to offer. And no one can fault a father for wanting to take such a path. But there is also a way of avoiding the horrors of the world and the agonies of our own lives that is entirely unhelpful and even harmful. There comes a time when to do otherwise is to lie to ourselves and others and only perpetuate harm.

McCarthy is well on one side of the horse, that of staring into the eyes of the grim. But for those who are ready and willing, his novels will help, in the words of the Dowager Countess, “bring [us] back to the world.”

At least, that is how it happened for me. The context in which I found myself–COVID-19 and some particular nasty situations I was aware of in my family’s orbit–caused McCarthy’s fiction to land on me in a way I never expected. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the fictional horrors being added onto the real life ones, I was actually less overwhelmed by my own.

I would never say my own or the ones I was aware of were made to seem less awful. As if, in light of the uniquely horrifying aspects of McCarthy’s stories, my own were made to seem not that bad. This is not a story of one instance of suffering being dwarfed in comparison to even more terrible ones. Precisely the reverse. Mine were made to seem more real.

Exactly as Harrower and trauma studies suggest, by reading the grim and lamentable in McCarthy, my own experiences were named as grim and lamentable. A concreteness was lent to my own which allowed me to better grapple with them. They weren’t dismissed, but were transformed from airy and ethereal, “out there” and unable to to be grasped like dementors floating around tormenting me, into felt tangible realities I could finally get my hands on. The thin and wispy turned thick and solid. I read evil clearly presented as evil and in turn my own experience of evil was acknowledged as real and validated. And I was consoled.

While the horrified fiction of others surely would accomplish the same, McCarthy’s fiction is particularly helpful for three reasons. First, the violence and grim realities of a given McCarthian world are presented as normative. As Philip S. Thomas argues, “McCarthy’s use of the grotesque to portray human evil…implies its existence as an inescapable fact of our world.”[12]

This consoles the reader that their own experience of the ghastly and bleak is not an aberration but par for the course in this life. Rather than rob from the severity of what we experience, it guards against it becoming overwhelming.

Second, the horrors of McCarthy’s novels are never explained away. In not a single work of McCarthy is there a theodicy in a classic sense. There are horrors galore, but they are never “answered.” We aren’t given an ultimate origin or a tidy conclusion to them. They remain, in a very real sense, “inexplicable.”[13]

McCarthy’s novels refuse to give us exactly what we don’t need but often think we do: answers. This is immensely helpful for those of us who are also walking through our own unresolved travesties. As counterintuitive as this may seem, the unsolved horrors of McCarthy’s novels turn out to be a balm in gilead.

Finally, McCarthy’s novels resist despair. True, they walk up to what sure seems like the precipice of it, and at times they even peer over the edge (like the ending of Blood Meridian), but they never take the leap. Though it can require taking a step back to see it, each of McCarthy’s novels are novels of hope. They each include characters who in the face of abhorrent evil refuse to give up.[14] This is equally vital for pilgrims who must press on in the face of life’s tragedies. We too must refuse to despair and McCarthy’s novels offer compelling narratives which inspire the needed resolve.[15]

McCarthy’s fiction names evil as evil which in turn gives vocabulary to the reader to identify and grapple with the like in their own lives. Further, it holds together in tension the two poles of refusal to answer and refusal to despair. And this is precisely what is needed for our own journeys on this side of glory. Trouble we will have, but take heart, One has overcome the world.

This is what McCarthy’s fiction does for those in the midst of their own horrors. It tells the truth about them–the brutal, stark, ugly, and painful truth–which allows the sufferer to give up the jig of pretending it isn’t so bad. That act is the weight that crushes. Rather than overwhelm, this in turn makes them seem all the more “manageable.” Not manageable in the sense of being able to do away with them. Exactly not that. But being able to grasp them and walk with them in a way we were not before. To get our fingers around them. To acknowledge just how disheveled they have made us, and yet, recognize they have not done us ultimately in. Here we still remain. We can and must go on. That is what telling the truth about the evil we cross paths with does. And literary fiction like Cormac McCarthy’s is one of the best tools humans have been given to do just that.

Making Sense Of The Grotesque In Our Bibles

This function of reading McCarthy is not unique to him. The Bible itself talks about the injustice of calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). Perhaps the injustice is not only in such a statement being a bold faced lie, but because to do so robs the sufferer, those experiencing injustice, of the opportunity to truly grapple with that reality.

Our Holy Bibles are full of evil. It is as inescapable as a McCarthy novel and I dare say sometimes darker. There is the fall, primordial human evil. There’s the “big ones” like Joseph being sold, and Job, and the concubine in Judges. There are “smaller” ones we think of more slowly. The incestuous rape of Tamar. Maternal cannibalism (2 Kings 6:24-31 for those whose memories suppressed it).[16] The utterly grim Psalm 88 which strikes no note of hope. Naomi losing her husband and both sons. Mary watching her son slaughtered, dangling before her eyes naked on a plank.

Scratching the surface seems sufficient for the point. Why are these horrors included in the Scriptures?

I am sure there are many reasons. But one surely must be why McCarthy is worth reading: so that we’d come away from The Book finally feeling like someone is telling it straight. Perhaps God in his beneficent providence saw fit to give us horrific reading material to console us in our own horrors by calling them what they are, while at the same time giving us a ballast that refuses to capsize into despair.

Whatever his reasons, the horror stories are there. And though we may never have expected it, for those with eyes to see, they console. As recipients of salvation via a Roman torture instruement, this should not surprise us.

And so, though it may feel like the last thing you feel like doing, in the face of life’s plentiful horrors: take up your McCarthy and take up your Bible, and be brought “back to the world.”

The horrific, after all, heals.


  1. Yes, this piece had an editor; McCarthy just uses hardly any punctuation.
  2. In Blood Meridian, the protagonist happens upon a tree decorated with ornaments of baby heads. In Outer Dark, the line of lines is crossed and we actually read of the gruesome throat slitting of a toddler.
  3. Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 10.
  4. Ibid., 11.
  5. Not that I recommend either of these activities.
  6. In fact, Blood Meridian, his most bloody and hard to read novel, due to its level of violence and “cover-your-eyes-son” material, is his most historically anchored having spent years studying the time period and history of the Texas-Mexico border. You can read about that process in this piece on Slate by Noah Gallagher Shannon,
  7. If this raises the charge against him, “what of the beauty we find in the world?”, one need only read an actual McCarthy novel to be disavowed of it. For McCarthy’s descriptions of the scenery in which the action takes place is nothing short of breathtaking.
  8. Rutledge, Advent, 58.
  9. Harrower, God of All Comfort, 60.
  10. Ibid., 80.
  11. Ibid., 70.
  12. Philip S. Thomas, In a Vision of the Night: Job, Cormac McCarthy, and the Challenge of Chaos (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021),139.
  13. Thomas, In a Vision of the Night, 136.
  14. It’s interesting to note that most of McCarthy’s novels are journey narratives. There is a protagonist who sets off on a journey in search of something. This is most clearly visible in The Road, but is also true of his works Blood Meridian, Outer Dark, No Country for Old Men, and The Crossing Trilogy. It may also be true of his earlier works but I have yet to read those.
  15. Thomas, In a Vision of the Night, 137-138.
  16. This is as McCarthian as it gets. See Outer Dark and The Road.

Zach Hollifield

Zach Hollifield gladly serves as Pastor of Young Adults at Red Mountain Community Church in Mesa, AZ where he lives with his wife Sydney and their children, Knox and Piper. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.