The literary world experienced a profound loss when Cormac McCarthy died at his home in Santa Fe on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, at the age of 89. While his absence creates a noticeable void, he leaves behind an unflinching legacy.
McCarthy's literary contributions serve as a powerful testament to the (often dark) complexity of humanity. His impact will continue to reverberate across time and space, as future generations grapple with the implications of his work.
Cormac McCarthy was known for writing dark stories. They’re grim and grueling, focusing on the pieces of humanity many of us would rather not spend a lot of time with. And yet, for all their violent brutality, we continue to turn the pages, moved by both monsters and humans—noticing that often, the characters are both.
During his lifetime, McCarthy wrote over a dozen novels—half of which have been made into movies—several short stories, and several screenplays. In remembrance of his thought-provoking contributions to the literary world, we are traversing some of his bleakest territory.
Here are the five darkest books in Cormac McCarthy's catalog.
Easily one of McCarthy’s most known and grimmest books, The Road follows a father and son through a post-apocalyptic America. It’s a dark story that forces the reader to question everything they think they know of humanity.
Armed with only a pistol and equipped with nothing but a cart of scavenged items, they face violent attacks and have to make horrific decisions, all while trying to maintain hope in a hopeless world. It’s visceral and violent, and yet at the core is a beautiful and heartbreaking story about a father’s love and how far he’ll go to preserve his son’s innocence. But this isn’t a tender world, and McCarthy forces the reader to endure the depraved depths of humanity by taking us through the true depths of what we’re capable of. It’s a brutal, unflinching journey that sees both the best and worst of mankind.
If The Road is McCarthy’s bleakest book, Blood Meridian is the most violent. It’s a relentless and harrowing re-creation of historical events that occurred in the 1850s along the Texas-Mexico border.
The story follows the Kid, a fourteen-year-old from Tennessee who finds himself in a cruel struggle for survival and dominance. He faces Judge Holden, a man who may take the title for most evil villain in existence who believes that anything can be accomplished through excessive force. McCarthy destroys the idea that conquering land isn’t a ruthless and vicious violation on every level and tears the mythology away from the romanticism of the Wild West. That time wasn’t just lawless, it was devoid of morality, and Blood Meridian brings the forgotten and traumatic events to life in gruesome detail.
No Country for Old Men
When Llewelyn Moss comes across a drug deal gone bad, all he sees is a briefcase full of life-changing money. Of course, he should have known someone would come looking for it. And that they wouldn’t be happy.
There is no doubt that McCarthy has some chilling villains, but what makes Anton Chigurh so terrifying is how realistic he is. He’s a hitman for the cartel and will stop at nothing to hunt Llewelyn down, all while Sheriff Bell tries to keep up with the explosive violence unfolding around him. No Country for Old Men isn’t one thing. It’s fast and contemplative and funny and haunting. McCarthy shows us through three Vietnam veterans the damage war inflicts and how trauma can shape us. But it deftly explores greed, aging, and morality in a stunning story that lingers long after the cover is closed.
Child of God
McCarthy creates characters who dive deep into the most uncomfortable depths of humanity. And Lester Ballard may be the most disturbing of those creations. What creates a psychopath? Lack of love? Lack of morality? Lack of sanity? If we had met Lester in the middle of the story, it would be easy to write him off as a textbook villain. But instead, we meet him before he’s done anything wrong. He’s a scoundrel, sure. A vexing nuisance who doesn’t pay his taxes. But he isn’t dangerous. Ask anyone in town.
But as we spend time with him, we watch his descent down a dark path. The story quickly moves from disconcerting into downright depraved, and yet, somehow McCarthy refuses to let us forget Lester’s humanity. It’s an unsettling glimpse into a side of humanity we rarely choose to see—and is not for the faint of heart.
Deep in Appalachia, a brother and sister search the hills. Rinthy looks for the baby her brother, Culla, put in her belly and then left in the woods. Culla searches for her. But he has men hunting him. And they don’t care who they have to destroy to find him. Set at the turn of the century, we are transported to a different time and place. It’s a haunting atmosphere wound taut by the grim cruelty carelessly inflicted on the characters.
It’s a heartbreaking story made worse by the crushing inevitability of the plot. Fear and hope run rampant, but so do vile men committing atrocious acts, and the juxtaposition between well-placed humor and lighter moments only makes the horrific scenes all the more terrible. Outer Dark is filled with monsters. But perhaps most unnerving of all, is how it shows that we are usually the cause of our worst nightmares.