Going by the shock and outrage routinely expressed by Games of Thrones fandom, one might be tempted to believe that George R.R. Martin invented gruesomeness, depravity, and moral ambiguity. Going by some of the critics and comments floating around the internet, one might be tempted to believe that the grimdark genre had ushered in some wholly new depravity in storytelling. Listening all of this banter and debate from the dark recesses of his cell at the Santa Fe Institute, author of Outer Dark Cormac McCarthy laughs with insane, mocking glee (I have no proof that he actually does this; I just assume).
McCarthy had been treading bleak, nihilistic landscapes for longer than most of us have been alive. He describes things such as the consumption of human fetuses with casual mastery and disturbing vividness. He systematically destroys every bit of his reader’s hopes, not only in the turnout of the story but in the turnout of their own lives. And he manages to do all of this with language so intoxicatingly poetic, imagery so nightmarishly beautiful, that we thank him even while we despair under his existential abuses.
Of all McCarthy’s grim, dark catalog, 1973’s Outer Dark stands out as being singularly pertinent to the grimdark landscape. You want to talk about a prevailing sense of moroseness, darkness, and violence? Game of Thrones might leave you sharing a sense of indignant outrage around the water cooler on Monday morning, but McCarthy will leave you in full-blown catatonic despair.
Outer Dark is unique among McCarthy’s books for the fact that it takes place in a blatantly fantastic setting. Namely, it is a dark, twisted version of rural Appalachia that sets the stage for our tale of perverted Americana. This world is not as overtly mythical as books such as Manly Wade Wellman’s Who Fears the Devil? or as obviously magical as books like Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker. Yet, it is set in a reality that is not our own.
Perhaps because McCarthy is such a darling of serious academics, the fantastic elements in his books are often ignored or explained away as purely psychological devices. From the wampus cats and panthers of The Orchard Keeper to the black magic ritual of Suttree and the surreal encounters infusing the Border Trilogy, however, McCarthy’s work blends the real with the mythic so subtly and pervasively that I’d argue he can be read as a certified fantasist. That is a bold claim, though, and one that may bring hordes of chain-wielding English professors down upon my head, so I’ll let the larger argument die. In regard to Outer Dark, however, only the most stubbornly elitist critic can deny the otherworldliness of the book.
Outer Dark is similar to GoT in that the events of both tales are set in motion by an incestuous brother/sister relationships. Unlike GoT, however, the sibling-fornicators of Outer Dark come from the absolute bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Culla and Rinthy Holme are what city folk today might be tempted to call “backwards-ass hillbillies.”
Culla is consumed with shame at the baby he has produced with his sister, so he takes the child out to the woods to die. He doesn’t have the stomach to actually end the child’s life, so he just leaves it for the elements. The infant refuses to die and is picked up by a “small gnomic creature wreathed in a morass of grizzled hair” that we only ever know of as “the tinker.” Culla tells his sister that he buried the baby after it died in birth, but Rinthy doesn’t believe him. Eventually, she discovers the truth.
So it is that Rinthy sets out on a journey down a dark road leading into a nameless country to get her baby back. Culla, meanwhile, strikes out blindly, trying to escape all the sins he’s committed. They travel through the same world, but their experiences are vastly different. Where Rinthy finds kindness and charity among the grotesque, carnivalesque company of the dark world, Culla finds nothing but scorn and threat. Everywhere he goes he is mistaken for a criminal and hunted.
Through this meandering tale run three demonic figures who seem to spawn from the countryside itself. This crew, ruthless and efficient murderers, seem to somehow be connected to Culla, though it’s never entirely certain to us to or him what that connection is. Whoever or whatever has sent them, the figures seem to have been called to destroy Culla.
As with most of McCarthy’s books, the true gold is not in the plot but in the ambience that the novel creates. A heavy, gloomy sense of despair hangs over the story, unerringly hopeless and yet infallibly beautiful in its own peculiar way. From the consumption of human flesh to a strangely unsettling account of a stampede of hogs, the book is like a window looking into a serial killer’s daydreams (but in a good way). Even seemingly innocuous things are described with a hellish slant. The woods are described as “trees beginning to close him in, malign and baleful shapes that reared like enormous androids provoked at the alien insubstantiality of this flesh colliding among them.” A swamp is “a faintly smoking garden of the dead that tended away to the earth’s curve.” From beginning to end, everything we encounter is ominous and twisted. The total reading experience is delightfully horrific, ecstatically repellant.
Spoiler alert: no justice or light awaits us in Outer Dark. People pray, but their prayers are never answered. Lives are cut down and forgotten. Evil seems to be self-justifying and self-perpetuating force. In short, the book takes us into a grim, dark universe devoid of hope or illumination – the kind of thoroughly despair-swollen place that, for some reason, I love spending my reading time in.
As a grimdark fan, this is a must read.
Read The Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy