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Literature / Blood Meridian

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"Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint.
Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible.
Finally, you fear blood more and more.
Blood and time."

Also known as The Evening Redness in the West, this 1985 anti-Western novel by Cormac McCarthy is extremely dark and esoteric, much more so than his already dire previous works. It’s a thorough deconstruction of the Wild West and Injun Country, and its main theme, such as it is, could be reasonably argued to be the darkness and ugliness at the heart of The American Dream.

The novel follows a teenage runaway, only known as The Kid, who by coincidence stumbles into the company of the Glanton Gang. This troupe of historical scalp-hunters and later outlaws are employed by the Mexican government at Chihuahua to exterminate the native tribes waging war against the settlements of the surrounding countryside. Needless to say, it's not positive reading.

Multiple attempts at film adaptations have been tried, including from Ridley Scott and Todd Field, but nothing has come from them. The latest attempt at a film is moving forward under John Hillcoat, who previously directed the film adaptation of McCarthy's The Road.

Provides examples of:

  • The Ace: The judge does everything perfectly. He's always perfectly composed and never seems to be troubled or hindered by anything. This all goes toward implying his supernatural nature.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: In his book, Samuel Chamberlain describes Judge Holden as "hairless," but this means that he had no beard. Chamberlain drew the man with a full head of hair. McCarthy exaggerated this description to depict the judge with no hair on his body whatsoever.
  • Affably Evil: Toadvine and Tobin are sympathetic for being scalp-hunters, and sometimes act as father figures to the kid. Tobin is particularly fond of the kid, and the feeling is mutual; after the gang's defeat, when given the opportunity to join the judge or Tobin, the kid chooses Tobin, and the two flee Holden together.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Toadvine and Brown are hanged near the end of the book, and it's played surprisingly quite sad, especially since Toadvine was one of the more sympathetic characters.
  • Aloof Leader, Affable Subordinate: Played with. Glanton, the leader of a gang of scalp hunters, is a vicious psychopath. His second in command, Judge Holden, is much worse than him. However, Holden isn't Ax-Crazy and can be charming. He even does well during formal events, such as when the gang must meet with the governor that hires them.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • The killer(s) of the children who die in the gang's wake is never clearly stated. It's certainly implied to be Holden, but there are other possibilities.
    • Exactly how violent the kid is seems to be deliberately unclear. He certainly commits violent acts, but the extent to which he participated in the gang's worst massacres is never stated conclusively, and late in the story Holden says that the kid alone had some "clemency for the heathen."
    • It's left unclear whether the judge kills the kid in the end. He certainly did something terrible to him in the outhouse.
  • Anti-Hero: The Kid is part of the depraved scalping band, but is A Lighter Shade of Black.
  • Anyone Can Die: The only major characters that are still around by the climax can fit on one hand. By the final page, the only character who is alive for certain is the Judge.
  • Arc Words: "They rode on" is the most frequently used sentence in the novel.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: Several examples occur throughout the novel. Captain White's expedition and the Glanton Gang are the most obvious, given their ragtag natures and the criminal backgrounds of most of the participants in either, but other groups in the novel fit the bill as well such as the Mexican bandits that The Kid and Sproule encounter or the Comanche warband that wipes out White's expedition.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Black Jackson decapitates White Jackson with a single swing of a Bowie knife. Needless to say, this is next to impossible in real life. Though earlier in the book, the gang's "knives" were likened more to claymores than anything else, and Black Jackson's blade is big enough that he needs two hands to do the job.
  • Ax-Crazy: John Joel Glanton, the leader of the mercenary gang, has killed so much he has gone insane. Many of his men are even more blood-crazed than he is. Judge Holden, however, seems to be doing exactly what he's set out to do.
  • Back-to-Back Badasses: Toadvine and the kid end up in this position by the end of a meaningless bar fight, surrounded by dead Mexicans.
  • Badass Preacher:
    • Tobin the ex-priest. There is some in-universe confusion about just how much of a priest he really is/was (he claims to have only been a seminary student and no real priest, while the judge says he used to be a "respected Doctor of Divinity" at Harvard), but he's still pretty faithful to the Christian God in his own way, and doesn't really show the typical traits of the Sinister Minister.
    • Holden may not be a Christian, but his science lectures are more like sermons than academic discourses. Tobin even says that when Holden first joined the group, he gave a sermon on the nature of the world unlike any that any of the group had ever heard.
  • Bald of Evil: Judge Holden doesn't have a hair on his body as one aspect of his Red Right Hand.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Played straight with the bear that carries off one of the Delaware Indians and averted with the harmless dancing bear in the saloon.
  • Big Bad: While Glanton is the leader of the gang, it's clear that the Judge is the one that's really in charge. He fills this role in a more traditional way after Glanton is killed.
  • Big Eater: When the Glanton gang returns from one of their killing sprees in Mexico, they celebrate by cleaning out all the food in the Hotel. Then they have the staff bring in the extra food. They polish that off too. So they bring in the extra, extra food. They are about halfway done cleaning that up, when the staff returns with food they'd been tasked with collecting from the villagers.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • The Glanton Gang operates on the border of Texas, and they speak Spanish with the natives.
    • The prophecies of the traveling circus band are entirely in untranslated Spanish.
    • The last scene of the book is inexplicably described in untranslated German in the chapter summary.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: And the gray is very, very dark. The Kid, Toadvine, and Tobin (the gray) are brutal and violent, but have a sort of Honor Among Thieves mentality and are willing to draw the line at some utterly depraved acts. The Judge, Glanton, and Brown (the black) are completely amoral and revel in their depravity.
  • Blast Out: There's several instances where a single act of violence escalates into mass bloodletting. The Judge accusing a preacher of vile crimes works the crowd into such a rage that they start killing each other after the preacher is shot dead. Later on, a drunk at a cantina stabs one of the Glanton gang, which results in the Judge shooting the attacker dead, which results in a massive gunfight that kills dozens.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Another way of looking at it. Most of the characters in the book, hero and villain alike, don't so much have twisted morals as they lack notions of good and evil altogether, and don't even seem to have motivations in general.
  • BFG: During the Yuma massacre, the judge uses a howitzer as a handgun.
  • Bullying a Dragon: An innkeeper staunchly refuses to sell liquor to the Glanton gang, claiming that he doesn't serve colored folk. The gang takes that insult as well as you'd expect.
  • The Can Kicked Him: It's strongly implied that Judge Holden murders the kid in an outhouse at the end of the story. We never actually see the manner of his death, which makes it all the more disturbing.
  • Cassandra Truth: Reverend Green, the preacher that the Judge incites a mob to lynch on false charges spouts one about Holden out of desperation.
    "This is him, cried the reverend, sobbing. This is him. The devil. Here he stands."
  • Cattle Drive: The Kid encounters one on his travels, and sees the dust cloud that it raises long before he sees the cattle.
  • Coming of Age Story: For the Kid. He begins the story as a violent youth who runs away from home, joins the vicious Glanton Gang, and eventually grows out of his lust for violence, rejecting everything Judge Holden stands for before Walking the Earth - though it's strongly implied that it doesn't end well for him.
  • Con Man: The reader's introduction to Judge Holden. He convinces a crowd that their preacher is a child rapist and a wanted criminal in another town. The crowd is soon worked up into a rage until they riot and lynch the preacher. Judge Holden later admits he made it up, and got the preacher attacked simply For the Evulz. The men in the crowd are at first horrified, then laugh and buy Holden a drink.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Judge Holden is prone to discoursing on various esoteric or philosophical topics around the campfire, speaking with an odd eloquence his illiterate rapist companions obviously lack.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Whatever the Judge truly is, he is something that is beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend. He never sleeps, he says he will never die...
  • Crapsack World: The bleak but gorgeously described frontiers of America and Mexico.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: All over the place, really. Many readers interpret the Kid's fate to be one.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle:
    • The Comanches absolutely obliterate Captain White's filibusters early on. The Indian tribe suffers no casualties and only a handful of survivors escape, with the Kid being the only one alive by the next day.
    • Later, the Glanton gang is about to leave a bar when a drunk stabs one of their members. The judge shoots the drunk, causing the rest of the bar to attack the gang. In the ensuing "fight," there's only one casualty on the gang's side, and that's the guy who got stabbed. Out of the 36 patrons, there's only one survivor, and that's only because the gang thought he was dead.
  • Darker and Edgier: Compared to most westerns, it's unrelentingly brutal and disturbing. Also, it's this compared to McCarthy's earlier novels, which were plenty dark and pessimistic in their own right, but weren't as gory.
  • Death by Racism: The story has multiple instances of arrogant white men meeting gruesome, undignified ends at the hands of "savages" who are really no worse than themselves.
    • Captain White gives an impassioned speech about the racial inferiority of Mexicans before his small Army of Thieves and Whores try to pillage and conquer the Mexican state of Sonora for the United States. The column instead proves completely unprepared for the task and ends up wiped out by a passing Comanche warband in a brutal Curbstomp Battle. White himself, after making an initial escape, is subjected to a Decapitation Presentation by the same Mexicans who he'd earlier disparaged as weaklings and cowards.
    • White Jackson, after threatening to kill Black Jackson for not sitting with the other non-whites at camp, gets beheaded in one stroke by Black Jackson after he comes back with a Bowie knife.
    • Later on at an bar, the white owner demands that the Glanton gang's non-white members (chiefly Black Jackson) sit at a different table than the whites. The gang mocks the owner for this and when he won't back down, Brown tosses him a pistol and dares him to shoot Jackson, prompting Jackson to stand up and kill the bar owner with a shot to the head.
    • Most of the Glanton gang gets wiped out by a Yuma warband, along with any white and Mexican prisoners they were holding. Glanton in particular gets his head split in half and his body thrown on a pyre.
  • Deconstruction:
    • The entire novel is a massive deconstruction of western stories, particularly ones that focus around Mighty Whitey and The Savage Indian. Rather than a noble group of outlaws or lawmen, this story follows a group of state-sponsored mercenaries as they travel around Mexico exterminating the Indigenous. Rather than the West being glamorized as a true frontier for manly men, it is a hopelessly brutal place where people die in violent, excessively gory ways. Rather than the white protagonists being treated as heroes for their conquering of the Native Americans, they are portrayed as viciously brutal, inhuman monsters who rape and kill for pleasure and profit. Essentially, the entire story shows the true viciousness of human nature and the capacity for evil found within everyone, even our protagonists. After all, Judge Holden is described as being particularly pale, meaning the whitest character in the novel is also the most evil. It also challenges the classic ideas of good versus evil in westerns by having the Judge get away with everything as a major Karma Houdini, while the protagonist faces an Uncertain Doom at his hands.
    • The novel also picks apart the idea of Westerns being used as a form of historical revisionism and whitewashing. A lot of modern world nations portray their founding as honorable, ethical undertakings, often downplaying or ignoring their sordid pasts. This tends to bleed into their media- notice how many American movies about the Wild West portray cowboys and settlers as heroes, as just one example. The novel chooses to instead focus on America and its history of genocide, showcasing the American/Mexican conquering of the frontier as absolutely horrific instead of its usual depiction as a just undertaking. Men, women and children are mercilessly killed and defiled all for a small amount of money, and the protagonists degenerate from mercenaries killing for profit to maniacs killing just to kill. If the American Dream and Manifest Destiny crushes people underfoot, then the novel shows you what remains of their broken, crushed bodies in horrific detail.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: The kid and Toadvine have a street fight, during which they're both beaten unconscious by a mob. After waking, they're perfectly civil to each other. Once they both join Glanton's gang, they have more of a connection to each other than to most of the other filibusters.
  • Devil in Disguise: Strongly hinted at in Judge Holden's case:
    • He has an unusual appearance, with seemingly supernatural strength, stark white skin that never burns despite spending years in the desert, and doesn't seem to age.
    • His backstory is largely unknown: He simply showed up in the middle of the desert, seemingly waiting for Glanton and his gang to come across him - despite this, everyone in the gang (bar the ex-priest Tobin) have crossed paths with him before they joined.
    • He displays a dizzying array of knowledge and skill, from remarkable works of chemistry to seemingly impossible tricks of prestidigitation.
    • He frequently makes sermon-like speeches about the evil of humanity and worshipping war as God. Even his title evokes the idea of Biblical judgment, and the scene in which he makes gunpowder is an allusion to Satan doing the same in Paradise Lost.
    • Towards the end, Judge Holden says that if humans have no free will, then some other entity must be pulling the strings. He then remarks "I know him well," which, assuming that this entity is the Christian God, strongly implies that Holden is Satan, or at least some kind of demon.
  • Downer Ending: Something happens to The Kid, and The Judge is left dancing in exultation of his depravity, declaring that he'll never die. However, the allegorical epilogue seems to suggest some hope for humanity.
  • Either/Or Title: The full title is Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West.
  • Enemy to All Living Things: The Glanton gang, and in particular the judge. Be it human or animal, they violate and/or kill everything that crosses their path during the story. The narration begins describing them as more like The Legions of Hell than a normal outlaw band as the book goes on, with the earth itself seeming to shudder at their passing.
    "As if in the transit of those riders were a thing so profoundly terrible as to register even to the uttermost granulation of reality."
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Glanton's gang recruits blacks, Mexicans and Delaware Indians, and everyone is treated equally. The whites are still racist, however, particularly against Native Americans.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The Judge's introductory scene has him falsely accuse an innocent preacher of raping children and animals. He admits later to having done it For the Evulz.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Toadvine threatens to kill the judge after the judge kills (and by implication rapes) a small child... though he backs down shortly thereafter. Later, he objects halfheartedly to slaughtering "a band of peaceful Tiguas," but, again, doesn’t actually go so far as to do anything about it.
    • The novel contrasts the violent natures of the Kid, Toadvine, and Tobin with The Judge, Glanton, and Brown. The Kid and his friends became bounty hunters as a vocation, and while they're more than willing to kill, they seem to take no particular pleasure in it and are often reluctant to do so for no reason. In contrast, the Judge and his most loyal disciples are completely amoral and revel in murder and mayhem for its own sake.
  • Eye Scream: Early in the book, the Kid stabs a barman in the eye with the broken neck of a bottle.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Judge Holden is often an eloquent gentleman, who takes off his hat for ladies and whores alike. It's implied that any kindness or charity coming from the judge is to facilitate future depravity or simply to amuse himself.
  • Flaying Alive: Glanton's gang collects the scalps of Indians, both dying and dead, for profit. As they descend further into evil, they also begin taking the scalps of Mexicans, which can pass for those of Indians.
  • For the Evulz: The name of the game for the judge, and consequently for Glanton's whole gang.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Some of the Comanche and Yuma warriors are mentioned going into battle nude. Black Jackson and the judge also do this at different points, in the former's case while he's drunk off his ass and caught literally with his pants down.
  • Gainax Ending: The ending is unusual and open for interpretation. In a nutshell: Judge Holden surprises the kid in an outhouse and does...something to him, which is apparently so horrible that people can only stare in awestruck horror at the aftermath. Afterwards, he is seen back in the tavern, playing the fiddle and dancing completely naked while boasting that he will never die. This is abruptly followed by an epilogue of...people digging rows of holes in the desert. Figure it out.
  • Genius Bruiser: The judge is a giant of a man, strong enough to crush a man's skull with his bare hands, but he's also highly educated, eloquent and Wicked Cultured.
  • Genre-Busting: It's technically a Western, but so dark and violent as to be barely recognizable. When the Judge is around, it's practically supernatural horror.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: It's not mentioned much, but the gang are (initially) specifically looking for Gomez, a historical leader of the Apaches who often raided and destroyed northern Mexican settlement. The Mexican government offered 1000 pesos for his head, which started the Scalp Wars and by extension the events of the story. In Blood Meridian he is alluded to but never seen.
  • Gorn: Most of the book consists of the kid's travels through the deserts and prairies, intercut with sickening scenes of violence.
  • Hand Cannon:
    • The Whitneyville Colts that Glanton purchases for his filibusters: massive revolvers that weigh nearly five pounds fully loaded, accepting a rifle-sized blackpowder charge. Their terrifying effectiveness accounts for much of the dragoons' success in terrorizing the population.
    • Judge Holden once picks up and fires a howitzer, an actual cannon.
  • High-Pressure Blood: When Black Jackson decapitates White Jackson, blood spurts up from the wound.
  • Historical Fiction: A great deal of Blood Meridian is drawn from My Confession, the historical account of Samuel Chamberlain, who claimed to have ridden with the real Glanton gang. The character of Judge Holden is taken directly from this record, and a surprising number of details for McCarthy's character are derived from Chamberlain's account.
  • Historical In-Joke: Captain White's fate, particularly his severed head winding up in a jar of alcohol, is based on a real-life filibuster named Henry Crabb.
  • Homage: Many, including Moby-Dick, The Bible, and Paradise Lost.
  • Hope Spot: Several.
    • Toadvine is horrified when he sees that Holden has scalped a young child, and considers killing him right then and there. Holden talks him out of it.
    • After a group of women, disgusted by the mistreatment of the Idiot, bathe him and show him kindness for the first time in his life. The Idiot attempts to drown himself after being bathed, but Holden "rescues" him, and keeps him as a pet.
    • Tobin and the Kid taking a stand against Holden. The Kid has three opportunities to kill him, all of which fall through.
    • While in the mountains, the Kid now the Man finds the horribly mutilated bodies of a group of penitents he'd seen around. Nearby them, he finds an elderly woman, whom he tells his life story to and offers to escort back to civilization. When he touches her, he realizes that she's been long dead.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Every single character; even the hero is a multiple murderer who later on carries a necklace of ears around his neck. The only possible exception is The Judge, as though he's the worst of the bunch, there's a suggestion he's not human.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The judge is heavily implied to be a supernatural creature of some sort, or even the personification of a concept.
  • Hunter of His Own Kind: The Delaware Indians in Glanton's gang. They willingly participate in genocidal slaughter against other Indians for profit. From their perspective, however, they're not kin.
  • Holy Burns Evil: When the Judge turns on Tobin and the Kid, Tobin constructs a crucifix out of a couple of steer bones and starts waving it around frantically at the Judge. It doesn't work.
  • Impossibly Awesome Magic Trick: Holden can perform magic tricks that defy explanation.
  • Invincible Villain: In the case of Judge Holden, this is likely to be literal. When the ex-priest Tobin tells the Kid that they need to kill Holden's horses and flee through the desert on foot, the Kid suggests just killing Holden instead so that they don't have to risk dehydration. By this point, Tobin has seen enough to tell the Kid not to be stupid, thinking that he can actually kill Holden. In the end, the book's last line is the Judge saying that he will never die.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: The idiot is consistently referred to in narration as "it", and generally comes across as more of an animal or golem than a person.
  • Jerkass: As brutal and violent as his fellows are, White Jackson repeatedly comes across as a petty jerk. This eventually gets him killed.
  • Karma Houdini: At the end of the story, the judge is joyously dancing and proclaiming that he'll never die. Tobin's fate is never established. The kid's fate is never concretely stated, but it's implied that the judge raped and/or killed him in the outhouse at the very end.
  • Kick the Dog: The judge has plenty, including buying dogs off of a young boy just to throw them in a river, where they are shot by the Vandiemenlander as the boy watches.
  • Knife Fight: Quite a few of these transpire during the course of the novel.
  • Leave No Witnesses: When the gang becomes part of a massive barfight in Mexico that leaves dozens dead, the gang kills all who start fleeing the scene so they can keep their working relationship with the Mexican authorities.
  • Left Hanging: Most readers come out saying the Judge raped and murdered the kid in the outhouse.
  • A Lighter Shade of Black:
    • The kid is a violent murderer who presumably took part in the Glanton gang's various atrocities, although he's never specifically described as doing so. On a number of occasions, the kid chooses to help, refuses to abandon, or simply decides not to kill a member of his gang, always against the advice of his fellows. The judge criticizes the kid for holding "clemency for the heathen" and rejecting his violent philosophy.
    • Toadvine and Tobin the Ex-Priest get on The Judge's bad side as well for showing a modicum of morality and mercy.
  • The Magnificent Seven Samurai: This trope is deconstructed in the novel. The Glanton Gang is hired by a Mexican governor whose province has been plagued by Apache raids. The gang will be paid for each scalp they take. However, Glanton and his men are a bunch of violent psychopaths who are just as vicious as the Apaches. They even start taking scalps from Mexican citizens and passing them off as Apache scalps. As a result, the Mexican government turns on them.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The never-seen Mr. Riddle is initially this to the Glanton Gang, which he has unleashed upon the natives of the Texas-Mexico borderlands. However, Judge Holden also fits this trope. He's not officially the leader of the gang, but he's clearly the brains as well as the most dangerous member.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • Is the tarot reading a real divination or just a mundane show?
    • Is the judge a supernatural being or just a very unusual man?
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Captain White looks down on Mexicans and Indians, and aims to take their land for white America.
    • Judge Holden is implied to be a supernatural being heavily associated with mankind's evil nature. The fact that he's almost always called "the judge" adds to these implications.
    • Mr. Riddle is The Ghost. He might very well be a pseudonym of the judge.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Captain White talks a good game about wresting control of the land from the savage Mexicans, but he proves to be incompetent.
  • Murderers Are Rapists: Glanton's gang rapes a lot of their victims. The judge rapes children in particular.
  • Never Learned to Read: As the kid ages into adulthood, he carries a Bible, which the narration says he cannot read a word of.
  • No Name Given: The kid's name is never given. He's referred to as "the man" in the very end, once he's an adult.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The lack of description of the book's final death, the implied death of the kid, is a stark contrast from the rest of the book where scenes of brutal violence are described in detail. It's also the only scene that provokes a specific reaction of horror from witnesses. This seems to imply that the death is so shocking and gruesome that no possible description can give it justice.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: The judge states that he wants to know everything about everything.
  • One-Steve Limit: White Jackson and Black Jackson. Neither Jackson is amused by the nickname. Black Jackson eventually decapitates White Jackson, but the nickname sticks.
  • Off with His Head!:
    • Captain White's head is cut off and pickled in a jar by vengeful Mexican soldiers.
    • Black Jackson takes White Jackson's head off in one clean stroke.
    • Glanton is beheaded as well, though his head had already been split in half prior to its removal.
  • Outside-Genre Foe: Judge Holden, does not fit comfortably in what is otherwise a mostly grounded novel about man's inhumanity to man. The novel implies that there is something not quite right about him, and by the end it's all but confirmed that he is some sort of undying evil against which the protagonist never really had a chance.
  • Pedo Hunt: At the beginning, Judge Holden gets a preacher lynched by falsely accusing him of raping a little girl (and a goat). It's strongly implied the the Judge is behind the missing and dead children throughout the story, and his accusations made of the preacher was likely based on acts the Judge himself committed.
  • Pet the Dog: Subverted by the judge several times.
    • When a small Mexican child is found by the gang, the judge spends the evening innocently entertaining and conversing with it. The child is found scalped the next morning.
    • When the gang finds a young boy selling dogs, the judge buys the dogs cheerfully with the trick of making a gold coin disappear and then making it appear from behind the boy's ear. He then throws the dogs into the river where they are shot by the Vandiemenlander, all with the boy watching.
    • The judge rescues the idiot from drowning for seemingly no reason but goodwill. From then on, however, the judge treats the idiot like a pet.
    • Played straight by Glanton, of all people. When he and Brown found a guard dog in a house, Brown considered shooting it, but Glanton ordered him to feed it jerky. It followed along with the gang.
  • Private Military Contractors: Captain White's filibusters are hired to take land from Mexico for the US. Glanton's filibusters are hired to kill Apaches.
  • Psycho for Hire:
    • The Glanton Gang is on the payroll of the Texan state, until they go rabid in the wilderness and begin to rape and slaughter Mexican civilians and Indians alike.
    • The Delaware Indians are this to the rest of the Glanton Gang. They may be mercenaries, but they're vicious even by the gang's standards.
  • Purple Prose: McCarthy is very much a writer who believes in making each sentence its own work of art and that style is shown off to its full extent here. At times the book feels almost biblical.
    "The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off."
  • Rated M for Manly: In about the most amoral, nihilistic sense possible but yes, this is a very masculine book.
  • Red Right Hand: The judge's alopecia and unusually pale skin gives him an eerie appearance and indicates his inner corruption.
  • Reference Overdosed: The Bible, Melville, and Milton are just the three you're most likely to catch. Watch this for some more insight.
  • The Runaway: The kid, of the vagrant kind.
  • Rummage Sale Reject: The Comanche and Yuma warriors are this, as is Glanton's gang albeit in a different way.
  • The Savage Indian: Zig-Zagged: The Comanche warband are an extreme example that's described like something worse than The Legions of Hell and the Delaware trackers are little better. However, other native groups such as the Gilenos and the Tiguas that the Glanton Gang massacre are mostly peaceful and shown as innocent victims, while the Karakawas are rumored to be cannibals but aren't shown doing anything untoward, and the Yuma band who are respectful if wary of the gang at first but absolutely willing to resort to brutal violence for aims both pragmatic (controlling the ferry) and revenge-based (following their heavy losses in the ferry battle).
  • Scenery Porn: For all the violence, a lot of the narrative is simply descriptions of the Southwestern landscapes that the kid passes through. (McCarthy followed the Glanton Gang's trail several times so he could precisely describe the landscapes and vegetation.)
  • Scenery Gorn: The descriptions of the village massacres' aftermath, with mounds of burned limbs and carbonized skulls. In addition, the story is set in a desert region, and is consistently described as a total wasteland, sometimes evocative of Hell.
  • Signature Style: McCarthy doesn't believe in punctuation and has actively declared war on it.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: The Kid gets one on The Judge near the end:
    Judge Holden: As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior's right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?
    The Kid: You ain't nothing.
    Judge Holden: You speak truer than you know.
    The Kid: Even a dumb animal can dance.
  • The Social Darwinist: Judge Holden preaches an extremist version of this. When asked how to raise children:
    "At a young age, said the judge, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert until..."
    "Hold on now," said Tobin. "The question was put in all earnestness."
    "And the answer, man," said the judge. "If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind, would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet?"
  • Sinister Southwest: The novel is the brutal and violent tale of the Glanton gang, a group of Indian hunters who operated throughout the American Southwest and the Mexican province of Chihuahua from 1849 to 1850. The story also has a few ambiguous supernatural elements with Judge Holden himself a Satanic Archetype and possibly a human-looking abomination given his beyond human feats.
  • Stupid Evil: Glanton's gang becomes so depraved by the end that they go against their self-interest and common sense. Even after amassing a fortune, they stay in their impromptu fortress and continue slaughtering and robbing everyone who comes by. In one notable instance, Brown insists on sawing off a priceless ceremonial shotgun in spite of the local gunsmith's refusal to destroy such a valuable item. Brown does it himself, nearly getting himself arrested in the process.
  • Take Our Word for It: The final fate of the kid is implied to be something so horrible that there are no human words to describe it. The two men who stumble upon the scene can only stare in horror, stating only "Good God almighty."
  • Token Good Teammate: The kid is probably the closest thing to one that the Glanton gang has, being a A Lighter Shade of Black. He's the only member to refuse to commit some sort of villainous act when pressured by the others.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: The kid joins the Glanton gang (along with Toadvine and Grannyrat Chambers) in exchange for being freed from prison by the governor of Chihuahua, having been arrested by Mexican authorities after being caught taking part in an unsanctioned invasion. Subverted, in that the Glanton gang are technically just private mercenaries contracted by the Mexican government.
  • Übermensch: Judge Holden is a rather dark example of this. He believes that morality, as a manmade concept, has no place in the world, and that only the most ruthless and amoral should be permitted to survive.
  • The Unfettered: The Judge, during one of his lectures, tries to explain gravitational orbits of the stars by swinging a coin around on a thread and explaining how both objects, and men, move "According to the length of their tether" with the least tethered making the greatest moments. He then throws the same coin into the darkness, turns 180, and catches it, implying he's thrown it around the world, hinting at both his supernatural nature and his complete lack of a moral tether.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The book is based on My Confession, Samuel Chamberlain's autobiographical book about his time in the Glanton gang. The veracity of Chamberlain's story is often questioned, although McCarthy did the best with what little verifiable information about Glanton there was to the point of learning Spanish to create more accurate conversations and moving to El Paso, Texas to personally trace the routes the Glanton gang were reported to have taken. Historians have read the novel and stated that it was about as historically accurate as a book could get.
  • Violence Is Disturbing: All of the violence is portrayed as shocking and disturbing, rather than cool or adventurous.
  • Virtue Is Weakness: Judge Holden certainly believes so, and the Kid's propensity toward acts of kindness and mercy is one of the few things that seems to make him genuinely angry.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • What becomes of Tobin is never revealed.
    • A chunk of narrative is spent on showing Brown sawing off a ceremonial shotgun. The judge later mysteriously acquires the clothing and rifles of Brown and Toadvine, but no mention is made of Brown's shotgun.
    • What happened to the idiot?
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Toadvine and the kid both have the judge dead to rights at different points and strongly consider killing him, but opt not to for mysterious reasons. In the latter's case Tobin outright begs him to end the judge while he has the chance.
  • The Wild West: A lot of Western tropes are given a darkly revisionist twist.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Children seem to disappear and die whenever Holden is present. There's also at least two incidents where it's all but stated that he's raped them.
    • In a particularly grisly scene, one of the Delaware Indians smashes two infants' heads against a rock.
  • Zerg Rush: The Comanches travel in a colossal herd of animals and swarms their targets, disorientating them and then rushing in to kill them in the chaos. Captain White's filibusters don't realize how screwed they are until it's too late.

He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.