Outer Dark — Cormac McCarthy


In Cormac McCarthy‘s second novel, Outer Dark, set in the backwoods and dust roads of turn-of-the-century Appalachia, Culla Holme hunts his sister Rinthy, who has abandoned the pair’s shack to find her newborn baby. Culla has precipitated this journey by abandoning the infant in the woods to die; a wandering tinker finds the poor child and absconds with it. As Rinthy and Culla independently scour the bleak countryside on their respective quests, a band of killers led by a Luciferian figure roams the wilderness, wreaking violence and horror wherever they go.

In a recent interview with the AV Club, critic Harold Bloom noted that Cormac McCarthy “tends to carry his influences on the surface,” pointing out that McCarthy’s major influence, William Faulkner, tends to proliferate throughout McCarthy’s early work to such an extent that those works (The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, Suttree) suffer to a certain degree. Indeed, it’s hard not to read Outer Dark without the Faulkner comparison invading one’s perception. It’s not just McCarthy’s Appalachian milieu, populated with Southern Gothicisms, hideous grotesques, rural poverty, incest, and a general queasiness. It’s also McCarthy’s Faulknerian rhetoric, his elliptical syntax, his dense, obscure diction, his bricks of winding language that seem to obfuscate and resist easy interpretation. Like Faulkner, McCarthy’s language in Outer Dark functions as a dare to the reader, a challenge to venture to the limits of what words might mean when compounded. And while the results are sometimes (literally) startling, they often strain, if not outright break, the basic contract between writer and reader: at times, all cognitive sense is lost in the word labyrinth. Take the following sentence that ends the first chapter, where Culla looks back on the infant he has just abandoned:

It howled execration upon the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor.

A “paraclete” is someone who offers comfort, an advocate. I’m thinking that the “jawhasps” must be a twisted mouth. No idea what “camarine” means. But it’s not just the obscure diction here: the whole action is obscure (how does one go about “putting back the night”?). This confusing passage is hardly an isolated incident in Outer Dark; instead McCarthy repeatedly employs long, dense, nearly unintelligible sentences, constructions that defy the reader’s ability to visualize the words he or she is being asked to decode. This unfortunate tendency alienates the reader in ways that are no doubt intentional, yet ultimately unproductive. More often than not, McCarthy’s long twisting hydras of obscurantism are not so much moving or thought-provoking as they are laughably ridiculous, and while his vocabulary is surely immense, it’s hard enough to get through such abstract sentences without having to run to a dictionary every other word.

Readers of mid-period, or even more recent McCarthy works will no doubt recognize this complaint, so it’s important to note that we’re not talking about the density and alienating syntax of Blood Meridian, the philosophical pontificating of The Border Trilogy, or the occasional run-to-a-thesaurus word choice one can find in The Road. No, Outer Dark is full-blown Faulkner-aping (Faulkner at his worst, I should add); over-written, ungenerous, and just generally hard to get into, especially the early part of the novel which is particularly guilty of these crimes. Which is a shame, because once one penetrates the wordy exterior of the first few chapters, there’s actually a pretty good novel there. While no one could accuse Outer Dark of having a tight, gripping plot, the intertwined tales of Culla and Rinthy–and the band of outlaws–gives McCarthy an excellent venue to showcase his biggest strength in the novel–the dialogue.

Spare and terse, the strange, strained conversations between McCarthy’s Appalachian grotesques are often funny, usually tense, and always awkward. Culla and Rinthy are outcasts who don’t quite understand the extent of their estrangement from the dominant social order. They frequently encounter fellow outcasts, often freaks of a mystical persuasion, like the witchy old woman who frightens Rinthy, or the old snake-trapper who freaks out Culla (a task not easily achieved). The dialogue between McCarthy’s characters reads with authenticity and intensity, and the author gets far more mileage out of the gaps in conversation, the elisions, the omissions–what is not said, what cannot be said. These odd characters culminate in the trio of outlaws who terrorize the fringes of Outer Dark. Their ominous black-clad leader prefigures many of McCarthy’s later antagonists, like the Judge of Blood Meridian or Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, but he pales in comparison to the former’s eloquent anarchy and the latter’s bloody intensity. McCarthy doesn’t really seem to know what to do with him, to tell the truth. Still, fans of Chigurh and the Judge will find the roots of those characters in this unnamed villain, and will probably have some interest in McCarthy’s evolution of this type.Indeed, it’s tracking this progression of themes and types throughout McCarthy’s body of work that was of the greatest interest to me, and in turn, I suspect that Outer Dark is probably going to be of greatest interest to those who’ve been reading McCarthy more or less chronologically backwards (like I have). It’s certainly not the starting place for this gifted author, and while its early dense prose will certainly provoke a few mournful groans, the end of the book redeems the bog of language at its outset.

14 thoughts on “Outer Dark — Cormac McCarthy”

  1. I also read McCarthy’s works in reverse—or rather, started with Blood Meridian, then all the later works, and then back to the older stuff. Indeed, it is fun teasing out the commonalities of his characters as well as various philosophical strains running through his works. The earlier works elaborate themes and perspectival shifts that become assumptions in his later works. While that kind of complexity is soma for English majors, it can be somewhat opaque to the typical reader enmeshed in more linear interpretations of matters at-hand. But I still take exception to the charge that McCarthy’s prose is “obscure” or “obscurantist” rather than “abstract.” You hear that one quite a bit, but it doesn’t at all coincide with the breadth of his works, or the manner in which his works complement one another.


  2. i think there’s a reason that you hear the charge of obscurantism quite a bit in relation to mccarthy. he seems to take great pains–especially in this novel, but also elsewhere–to describe the simplest of actions in terms that defy any concrete logic of causality or action. sometimes this is great, but in this particular novel he repeatedly uses a mace instead of a surgeon’s knife. the man can write some marvelous concrete stuff, for sure, and i think it’s the mark of his mid – later work–which is genius. but this novel contains some seriously flawed, downright bad writing. which is fine…it’s not like he’s a new writer starting out and i’m thrashing him. he’s a living american master.

    and i do like obscure, strange words–perhaps you can tell me the meaning of “camarine”?


    1. hey, also concerned with this “camarine” word and couldn’t find it anywhere. just found it incidentally in a thesaurus entree for “filthiness.” makes sense in the passage, i say.


  3. Noting the schemes and tropes helps us demystify the text and gain some measure of courage in confronting a novel that describes “times before nomenclature was”. Though it says nothing about the whole, the list is useful for a future analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s verbal techniques.


  4. Camerine noire is the French for Empetrum nigrum, the black crowberry, which is found in temperate and cold regions of the northern hemisphere. It grows in moist and shady areas or humid heathlands.

    The passage strikes as mythic and biblical, like the haunted, excoriating visions of Ezekiel. Laughably ridiculous is contentious but then, that’s essentially what DH Lawrence thought of much of the imagery and diction of the Bible (see his Apocalypse).


    1. Ah, cool. Yeah, I was perhaps too hard on the diction of Outer Dark—I read most everything by McCarthy over maybe nine months, and this novel struck me at the time as the least-achieved, or like a warm up for future stuff (in a way that the Orchard Keeper avoids, somehow).


  5. The first chapter of Outer Dark is peppered with unusual turns of phrase and choices of diction, but nothing quite prepares the reader for the onslaught of overblown prose that comprises the final paragraph. In all fairness, though, the second to last paragraph builds up to it with its ornate description of Culla lying on the ground seeing his newborn son briefly in a lightning flash. Up to that point, the narrative is rough going but definitely navigable; those last two paragraphs are probably the point at which most readers start scratching their heads, reading and re-reading, in an attempt to decipher exactly what message is being conveyed. My take on the last paragraph is that it forms a “bookend” to the dream sequence at the beginning of the chapter. During the dream, Culla is viewed as something of a paraclete by the rabble around him, petitioning the prophet for a cure of some sort to their shared affliction. By showing us the dream, McCarthy lets us inside Culla’s head, so to speak, but in the final paragraph, we only see him from the outside, a paralyzed outcast struggling to fend off the darkness and the madness of the crowd. I think “his hands putting back the night” could be a colloquial expression similar to “put out the light,” meaning perhaps that Culla was trying to push back or resist the darkness. It’s been several years since I read this book, now I’m really looking forward to what happens in the rest of it. Sure wish I knew what he meant by “dim camarine world” though!


  6. Camarine is French for crowberry which is a purple black edible berry of an evergreen bush. Camarine Noire. He was describing the night as dim and deep purple bordering on black.


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