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Literature / Child of God

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Child of God is Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, penned in 1973. It tells the story of Lester Ballard, a violent man roaming the countryside of Sevier County, Tennessee. Ballard is falsely accused of rape and is sentenced to a few nights in jail for the crime. Some time after his release, he finds a dead woman in a car and proceeds to have his way with her body. He takes her back to his house and buys her some clothes, but when his house burns down and her with it, something in him snaps, and Sevier County is in horrible danger...

Adapted to film by James Franco in 2013.


This book contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: The dumpkeeper, who cared so little for his own children that he came up with their names from a medical dictionary, also beat them for getting pregnant.
  • Affably Evil: While largely an antisocial, racist, misogynistic prick and murderous bastard, Ballard is capable of making friends and holding a few civil conversations. However, they aren’t very important to him, and he certainly isn't about to tell them about his private life, so he could easily count as Faux Affably Evil in that regard, too.
  • Ax-Crazy: The picture of sanity and pacifism, Ballard is not. This is backed up when he's asked if he could care less about his surviving victim, and his response is that he wishes "the son of a bitch was dead".
  • Bittersweet Ending: Ballard died in the mental hospital, but several people are still dead by his hand. It doesn’t help that the book ends with a grisly description of his victims’ rotting bodies in a hole.
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  • Black Comedy: At least the first part of the book could be considered this. Some parts that come to mind are the dumpkeeper’s daughters named being named “Urethra”, “Cerebella”, and “Hernia Sue”, or in the second part, where Ballard is casually walking around, wearing a belt of squirrel carcasses.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The book starts out with a lot of darkly humorous moments, but when Ballard discovers the corpse of the woman in the car, the humor becomes more sparse.
  • Cold Sniper: Ballard tends to shoot his victims from a distance with a rifle, though he has no issue with killing them up close.
  • Crapsack World: This is, after all, a Cormac McCarthy novel, so it’s guaranteed that there aren’t many good people around. And the ones that are debatably good are still rather cruel.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Possibly. Ballard only begins killing people when his house burns down with the corpse in it.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A young woman refuses to expose herself to Ballard, and kicks him out for rudely asking her to. His reaction? Murder her and set the house on fire while her child is still inside. Also see Abusive Parents above.
  • Evil Cripple: Ballard by the end, after his arm is shot off in a failed attempt to kill a man.
  • Freudian Excuse: Ballard’s mother ran off before his birth, and his father killed himself when he was young.
  • Gorn: Surprisingly little of it for a McCarthy novel, at least until the end. Namely, Ballard's corpse being dissected, and his victims being found rotting in a hole.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Lester clearly doesn't like women very much. He frequently calls them "whores" for incredibly petty reasons. When John the inmate says that "white pussy is nothing but trouble," Lester voices his agreement.
  • Hillbilly Horrors: Set mainly in the countryside with the redneck Lester Ballard serving as the Villain Protagonist, picking off anyone he sees on Frog Mountain.
  • I Love the Dead: Ballard stumbled upon the corpses of a young couple one day, and had sex with the woman’s body. Then he took her back to his house, for pretty obvious reasons.
  • Jerkass: Aside from being a necrophiliac, and later, a Serial Killer, Lester is a bit of a dick. He tries to scare off some people at an auction at what was once his property by threatening them.
  • Karma Houdini: Subverted. Ballard is taken from the hospital where he's recovering by a mob of hunters who want him to show them where he left the bodies of his victims, and he escapes them. But then he returns to the hospital and while he's not convicted for the murders, he is institutionalized for the remainder of his life.
  • Kick the Dog: Ballard picks up a robin and takes it to a young woman’s son while he’s waiting for a friend, and when she tries to tell him that he’ll kill it (which he does), he coldly states, "It’s hisn to kill if he wants to."
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Ballard is racist, and is horrified when he thinks that a woman he's watching in a car is having sex with a black person. Though this is somewhat downplayed, as he still manages to have a relatively friendly conversation with a black inmate. See also He-Man Woman Hater above.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: There's something inherently juvenile about Lester. For whatever reason, he keeps the stuffed animals he won at the carnival, and is prone to childish tantrums. Of course, since he was based on Ed Gein, this is a given.
  • Refuge in Audacity: John, (or "Nigger John", as he calls himself) the inmate in a cell next to Ballard, brags that he "cut a motherfucker's head off with a pocketknife."
  • Serial Killer: Later in the book, Lester starts killing people he stumbles across on Frog Mountain, taking (and wearing) the clothes of his female victims, both under and over.
  • Southern Gothic
  • Title Drop: Pretty early on.
    A child of god much like yourself perhaps.
  • Unfortunate Names: The dumpkeeper named his daughters "Urethra", "Cerebella", and "Hernia Sue".
  • Villain Protagonist: Sexual assault and harassment, bullying and intimidation, misogyny, racism, necrophilia, child and serial murder are all things done by our protagonist, Lester Ballard.
  • Villains Out Shopping: Or rather, villain out at the carnival trying to win stuffed animals, villain out shopping for food, villain out shopping for clothes for a corpse ...
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: One possible perception of Ballard, although if so, this trope would be very much downplayed. His mother disappeared in his youth, and as such, he never knew her, and his father hanged himself. Beyond this, the reader isn't given much reason to sympathize with him, given how unpleasant he is.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Ballard murders the same young woman mentioned under Kick the Dog, then sets fire to the house while her son is still inside.

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