The Horrors in ‘Child of God’
I often tell people monster movies don’t scare me. It’s the real stuff that freaks me out. For instance, I think the scariest horror film is A Beautiful Mind. And I don’t say that in jest. The idea of seeing people that aren’t there is a real fear of mine and the fact that it’s a real condition makes it all the more terrifying.
That’s not to say ghost stories and the like don’t get my heart racing or aren’t a little freaky, but for some reason, it’s the real stuff that gets me the most.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy is one of those stories. In no way does it qualify in the horror genre but I think it still is a horror. The prose is sweeping, poetic, and a little nuanced and playful. Though, at times, I found his sentence structure awkward and confusing. Plus, if you’ve not read other McCarthy’s books you should know he disdains commas, semicolons, and quotation marks. This can be a little jarring at first but you get used to it as you go along. Child of God is Southern Gothic in spirit and nature akin to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner. But, more like a bastard brother than a true friend.
Anyway, to the point. He’s not trying to scare the reader. He’s merely diving into a truly psychotic mind and seeing how that plays out. And, news flash, it ain’t good.
Horror novels like all genre fiction have calling cards, plot pacing, and conventions which aren’t in Child of God. He takes his time in the beginning and doesn’t worry about getting a plot going or trying to throw out scary cues. The focus is on Ballard and that’s all that matters. The true distinction lies between intent of the author, I believe. McCarthy isn’t trying to scare anyone just as A Beautiful Mind wasn’t trying to scare the pants off of me the night I watched it in my college dorm room. Yet, it’s still a terrifying book.
The moral digression of the main character, Lester Ballard, is both riveting and bone chilling. He prowls about the woods almost like Grendel, finding people making out in trucks, and committing hellacious acts without hesitation and without conscience. The people around him are incompetent, allowing him to get away with almost anything, and treating him more like a village idiot that doesn’t know any better.
McCarthy’s use of bird imagery compels. At first, most of the birds are harmless, flittering, and majestic, but there’s a dark turn about the middle of the book regarding one of Lester’s actions (something I won’t spoil), and from then on it seems like most of the birds are crows.
Monster stories don’t scare me. And yet, Ballard is as much of a monster as they come and terrified me with each increasing page. Perhaps, as a writer, the lesson here is to not worry so much about conventions or if you’re meeting certain standards in a genre. Perhaps, the lesson is to write what is true and know that truth will speak multitudes.