Book Review: The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

Literature

The Road Cover

The Road (2006), in many ways, bucks many expectations one might have about post-apocalyptic literature. I think that can be considered true of the rest of author Cormac McCarthy’s works. He is a writer who firmly grounds most of his works in genre fiction. Blood Meridian (1985) is a western novel. Child of God (1973) is a serial killer novel. Suttree (1979) is a southern gothic novel. But all of his works established in firm genre boundaries continue to explode notions readers may have of those genres. Blood Meridian is a western novel, but in many ways is the antithesis of the classic western as seen in novels like Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). It is unrelentingly violent and barbaric, and there is no notion of a battle of good and evil.

The Road also explodes the notion of post-apocalyptic literature. Whereas novels such as The Stand (1978) by Stephen King and The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham focus on what comes after the fall of society, and how one could possibly reconstitute a society, McCarthy’s work has no interest in that at all. At its core, The Road is simply about the relationships between fathers and sons, and the ways sons idolize their fathers into being heroes they may not be, and how those notions of heroism conflict with reality. In fact, this central theme doesn’t really need the post-apocalyptic genre for it to be a great novel, but the added sense of desolation, horror and the will to survive accelerate these notions and put them in stark contrast with the unrelenting darkness that the two main characters are surrounded by. It is without a doubt this element of the novel that I most enjoyed, and that I got the most emotional response to. I had a deep, human, guttural response to this work that I simply never had with Blood Meridian.

Cormac McCarthy

Author Cormac McCarthy’s novel explodes many of the notions readers may have about post-apocalyptic fiction.

As for the post-apocalyptic setting, McCarthy conjures up a world entirely his own. It is a world in which nothing grows because nothing can take root in the soil. It is a world in which what is left of humankind struggles to survive on what has been left behind. It is a world in which humankind has turned on itself, and use each other for food. It is unrelentingly dark and a world full of horror and despair. There are moments in the novel which are genuinely sickening and terrifying. The most memorable and shocking of moments for me had to be when the man and the boy come across a seemingly empty house. They find several mattresses and a pile of clothes within. Then they find a basement filled with a dozen starving naked men, women and children. And one man with a leg missing. As the owners of the house arrive, the readers cannot help but connect the dots. The basement is a pantry, and these people are the livestock on which the homeowners are living on. McCarthy never points this out deliberately. He leaves the image there to gather in the mind of the reader, and when the pieces finally click the horror is all the more terrifying.

The Road is without a doubt one of the most engrossing, absorbing, and emotional post-apocalyptic novels you’ll read. Whilst I hesitate to consider The Road as a literary classic like McCarthy’s own Blood Meridian, I will consent that an argument can be made. Ultimately, only time will tell whether The Road has the staying power that Blood Meridian does. It is very much a novel of the times. In a world in which 9/11 and the Paris Attacks can happen, it is very easy to slip into the worn and wearied shoes of the man and the boy and live in a state of constant fear. However, whilst the novel is depressing and bleak, these characters “carry the fire.” And whilst society probably won’t be able to reconstitute itself within the realms of the novel, it is some small comfort to know that human kindness and compassion can survive the most apocalyptic of environments.

9/10

Book Review: Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain

Literature

Double Indemnity Cover

I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.

When I heard Fred MacMurray say that line at the beginning of Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), I didn’t realise that it was one of the few instances in the film where quotes were taken directly from the pages of James M. Cain’s novel. For me, these two sentences really sum up everything about film noir, and go someway towards a definition of the genre. That film was my entrance into the world of film noir, so it was only fitting that the novel upon which it was based should be my entrance into literary noir.

Double Indemnity (1943) concerns itself with a plot by insurance investigator Walter Huff and the femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger to kill her husband for the insurance pay out, which will be even more if they manage to make it look like an accidental death on a train. These deaths are so rare that Phyllis would get a double indemnity payment. As Walter falls under Phyllis’ command due to lust, things get more and more dangerous, for all three involved.

Double Indemnity Poster

The film version of Double Indemnity is one of my all-time favourite Hollywood classics, so I wanted to read the original novel.

The first impression I had when reading the book was just how closely Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler had adapted it into screenplay – that was, until Walter and Phyllis kill her husband. After this point, the novel veered off the expected course for me, and that was wonderful. Having seen the film many times I didn’t think I’d see anything new in the novel, but to have a completely different ending was a wonderful surprise. Those who worry about that, having seen and loved the film, shouldn’t, as the ending is still very much in the spirit of the characters and is a logical conclusion, as is the film’s ending.

James M. Cain’s story is so well plotted and crafted it’s hard to fault it. He is truly a master craftsman – every event in the story feels like a logical outcome of the character’s innate desires and lusts. His characters are brilliantly drawn and complex. Walter and Phyllis are wonderfully written, and you really feel the sense of doom that falls over their relationship. While Keyes, who was played by Edward G. Robinson in the film, has a more minimal role in the book, Lola, Phyllis’s step-daughter, has a much more expanded role. Her affair with Walter is captivating and heart-breaking. Cain’s spare, pulpy prose is the essence of noir, and it drives the novel and it’s characters foreward with drama and strength. A novel that would be 300-400 pages in the hands of any other writer is stripped down to its essence by Cain. The writing is utterly captivating.

James M. Cain is considered one of the founders of crime noir fiction.

James M. Cain is considered one of the founders of crime noir fiction.

After reading Cain’s novel I am very much interested in reading both more of Cain’s oeuvre and literary noir in general. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Mildred Pierce (1941) are the next books I wish to read by Cain. The Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler, particularly The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1953), as well as the novel Galveston (2010) by Nic Pizzolatto are also on the list.

I cannot recommend the novel enough, both for those who love the film and for those who like crime fiction / noir in general. It’s a nasty story about nasty people, and in that respect ticks all the boxes you could expect from a novel of it’s kind. Recommended.

9/10

Book Review: The Stand – The Complete & Uncut Edition (1990) by Stephen King

Literature

The Stand Cover

I have a confession to make: I don’t really know how to start writing a review about The Stand. Part of this is because it’s difficult to write a review and contribute something to a book that has become so monumentally huge. Another part is that it’s just so long and there is so much to talk about here.

Stephen King’s epic post-apocalyptic narrative is, without a doubt, great literature. It is not popular fiction, as perhaps most of his books are. With this one he cracks his way into the shared light of authors such as Charles Dickens, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

A plague, colloquially known as Captain Trips, ravages the world. After the veil of civilisation has fallen the story follows numerous different characters as they all begin having shared dreams, or more appropriately, visions. Visions of two people – Mother Abigail, a kindly ancient old black woman, and Randall Flagg, evil incarnate. They are summoning their people for a final reckoning. A vast cast of characters will have to find their inner courage and make a final stand in the battle of good and evil.

Essentially, Stephen King’s narrative is his version of The Lord of the Rings. Some may dispute that and claim The Dark Tower is his version, but I would say that The Dark Tower is his magnum opus, an epic fantasy series. I believe The Stand has more in common with The Lord of the Rings than The Dark Tower has. In it’s most basic form, it is about normal, everyday people, who are pushed into extraordinary circumstances and must find their inner strength and goodness to overcome the overwhelming evil they are faced with. Stephen King says as much himself:

… instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor (‘where the shadows lie,’ according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas[1].

One of the billions of victims claimed by Captain Trips.

One of the billions of victims claimed by Captain Trips, as illustrated by Bernie Wrightson.

What Stephen King brings to this epic narrative of good versus evil, though, is his brilliant writing of characters and psychology. The narrative is actually very simple – the remnants of society form two groups of people, and they must battle for the fate of mankind. It’s a much simpler story in many aspects than Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings. What makes the page-count so high then is the amount of time that King devotes to exploring all of his many characters. He builds characters you will never, ever forget – Stu Redman, quite, wise, and heroic; Larry Underwood, a man in eternal combat with his own inner darkness; Frannie Goldsmith, loving and devoted; Nick Andros, mute and deaf but ever resourceful and caring; Harold Lauder, jealous and hateful; Tom Cullen, kind and brave. All of these characters, and others including the Trashcan Man and Lloyd Henreid, explode on the page. None of the plot feels forced or controlling. Everything that happens feels like a natural outcome of each character’s unique personalities. All must ultimately reckon with Randall Flagg, which brings me to perhaps the best part of the novel.

Randall Flagg is Stephen King’s archetypal portrayal of evil. He appears in many other novels, such as The Eyes of the Dragon, and he is a major character in his fantasy epic The Dark Tower. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest literary villains I’ve read. He is ephemeral, yet powerful. You’ll get the chills whenever he appears on the page, or whenever he uses his magic to torture and maim. He’s not really in the novel that much – he appears mostly in dreams and nightmares to the main characters, and occasionally is in contact with the rest of the citizens of Las Vegas. It’s only really the last third of the book in which he truly appears, and the build up to his character pays off. It’s truly stunning to witness such an amazingly written character appear.

Bernie Wrightson illustrates the scene where the Kid is put to death by Randall Flagg via a pack of wolves.

Bernie Wrightson illustrates the scene where the Kid is put to death by Randall Flagg via a pack of wolves.

Another great aspect of the novel is seeing how both civilisations reform. Witnessing the rise of the Boulder Free Zone is stunning stuff – you’ll share in the character’s jubilation as they heal from the nightmare they’ve all been faced with. Moments such as when, at the first political meeting of the Free Zone, everyone stands and sings the national anthem (well, apart from Nick Andros) will fill you with heartache and make you tremble. Others such as when they finally manage to get the electrics working again fill you with joy. It’s one of the novel’s most interesting and well-thought out aspects.

I cannot recommend this book enough – it is a masterpiece of fantasy and science fiction writing, and truly King’s best work. In many ways it could be considered a definitive American narrative, in the way Lord of the Rings could be considered a definitive British one. Search it out at all costs. You will fall in love with the characters and be utterly thrilled, horrified, and compelled by this narrative. Read it at all costs.

10/10


[1] King, Stephen. “The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition: The Inspiration.” StephenKing.com. Stephen King. Web. 4 Sep. 2015.

Top 10 books I read at the University of Warwick, 2014-2015

Literature

In my second year of study at the University of Warwick, reading English Literature, my modules focused on mostly American literature. I did three modules covering the time period of 1780 to the present day, and a fourth module on science fiction and fantasy writing.

I really enjoyed my reading this year so thought it would be cool to rank the books I read for the first time this year. Below are the novels (and two short stories) that I thought were the best of my reading.


10. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville (1856)

Benito Cereno

This novella, inspired by the real-life experiences of Captain Amasa Delano, follows a fictionalized Delano, sea captain of the Bachelor’s Delight, as they approach and board the battered San Dominick, a slave ship in a coastal region. Delano meets the captain of the ship, Benito Cereno, and his personal slave Babo, who seems a bit too close to his master. The ship has conscpicously more black than white people on deck. As Delano ventures deeper into the mystery of the San Dominick, he realizes all is not as it may seem. The novella is a brilliant examination of the American slave trade and is debated to this day whether the novel is pro or anti slavery. Melville’s minor masterpiece is thrilling, horrifying, and thought-provoking, and at only 100 pages or so it is a quick and gripping read.

9. Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Passing

Set in 1920s Harlem, Passing examines the friendship of two black women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. Clare is happily married to Brian, a black man, and they have two children. Irene, however, has passed as white since she was a teenager, and is married to a racist white husband. As Irene begins to entangle herself in Clare’s world, her dangerous activities begin to threaten the safety of all concerned. A brilliant, short novel that examines the politics of passing for a different race, as well as the racial tensions of the era, Passing is also one of the most memorable novels of the Harlem Renaissance. Thoroughly gripping.

8. “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft (1928)

The Classic Horror Stories

Possible H. P. Lovecraft’s greatest short story, “The Call of Cthulhu” follows Francis Wayland Thurston, as he begins to piece together the notes of his granduncle George Gammell Angell. What waits for him is the truth of the universe as he discovers the horrifying Cthulhu cult and it’s figurehead. Terrifying, atmospheric, and doom-laden, it is one of the best pieces of horror and science fiction writing ever. Despite the out-and-out racism throughout, the short story is captivating and speeds along to its horrifying climax. Unforgettable.

7. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1966)

Crying of Lot 49

Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelic, post-modern second novel is a slice of brilliance. Capturing brilliantly the insanity and decay of 1960s America, the novel follows Oedipa Maas as she uncovers a conspiracy dating back centuries concerning postal delivery. Haunted by the image of a muted post horn, she meets many weird characters on her journey, which is a 1960s odyssey through the seedy underbelly of America. Utterly unique in it’s approach to the novel, I wouldn’t try too hard to understand exactly what is going on at all times – simply fall under Pynchon’s spell and let the whole thing wash over you. At just over 100 pages it is easily one of the most readable books I’ve read.

6. “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving (1819)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories

“Rip Van Winkle” is perhaps the closest America has to a creation myth. Weaving together the folklore of the early settlements in America, particularly the Catskills, with the political revolution of independence, “Rip Van Winkle” effortlessly sums up and critiques the main problems of the beginning of the country. And it does this with a brilliant use of fantasy – lazy Rip Van Winkle falls asleep for 20 years and when he wakes America has won it’s independence from Britain. At the same time comic, disturbing, and weird, it’s a classic of American fantasy and perfectly captures the mysteriousness of the Catskills. It’s many passages describing the forests and mountains are unforgettable.

5. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy’s epic western is an American revision of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Instead of Kurtz, we have the Judge; instead of Marlow, we have the kid. Epic and spanning the vast swathes of desert and brush, Blood Meridian is easily one of the most disturbing studies of violence and the human condition you’ll read. The Judge proves to be one of the most memorable of American villains – up there with Robert Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell of The Night of the Hunter (1955).

4. Pastoralia by George Saunders (2000)

Pastoralia

George Saunders’ collection of short stories Pastoralia is a piece of genius writing. The stories assembled are all memorable. Saunders combines the real world of down and out America with the cartoony world of pulp fiction. An amusement park where staff are employed to permanently live as the exhibits; a male stripper targeted by the rotting corpse of his grandmother must help get his family out of financial decline; these are just two of the six stories in the collection and each is better than the last. Saunders’ stories are deeply affecting, emotionally gripping, intellectually stimulating, and absolutely hilarious.

3. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)

Narrative Frederick Douglass

Douglass’ masterpiece of a memoir charts his childhood born into slavery, his adolescence as he grasps the importance of reading and writing to his eventual freedom, and the struggle that nearly destroys him as an adult as he decides he would rather die than live another day as a slave. Douglass proves in this slim volume that he is at once one of the most remarkable people that has ever lived and also an economic writer of brilliance. A short memoir that captivates you and is a real page turner, by the ending you will be emotionally drained but you will come out feeling that you have become somehow a better person by sharing in his struggles. Douglass is someone who fought for years, by mind and by fist, for his freedom, and when he finally gets it the moment is so full of ecstasy and glory it is hard to describe. The fact that this novel, whilst debated at the time, didn’t mobilise the anti-slavery movement to the extent that the dire and melodramatic Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) astounds me.

2. The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902)

The Virginian

The novel that practically kick-started the western genre, Owen Wister’s The Virginian is a mythic and epic tale and also a modern mythology for the United States. The Virginian is one of the greatest of literary heroes. One third moral and social philosophy, one third romance, and one third western action and daring-do, the novel is gripping and a thrill to read. The Virginian’s on-going feud with Trampas, and their shootout that ends the novel is unforgettable. His courtship of Molly Wood is magical and will have you turning the pages. Their romance explodes on the page. An absolute treasure of a volume that should be read by everyone.

1. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)

As I Lay Dying

Faulkner’s southern gothic novel is a harrowing read. Before Addie Bundren dies at home in the poor fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, she lets her family know that she would rather be buried in the town of her birth, Jefferson. The members of the family all narrate the novel in a stream-of-consciousness style as they traverse Mississippi with the dead body to honour her wishes. The characters are flawed, horrifying, and deeply disturbed. Darl, Anse, Jewel, Dewey Dell – these are characters that you will never forget. Their odyssey will change them all in ways they cannot forsee and reveal all of their true colours at their most grotesque. An absolute masterpiece.


There you have it folks. If you’ve read any of these novels or short stories and wish to talk about them don’t hesitate to comment. I enjoyed all of these works and cannot wait for my next year at University.