Devil’s Own Country by Tom Holland

Tom Holland

Devil’s Own Country


In the late summer of 1998, I flew for the first time to the American West. I went there in search of dinosaurs. Back in London, my wife was pregnant with – as it would turn out – our first daughter. Conscious that my opportunities for travel were about to narrow severely, I wanted, while I still could, to see the fossil beds and natural history museums that lie in the shadow of the Rockies. Nowhere in the annals of palaeontology had produced more iconic dinosaurs: stegosaurus, triceratops, tyrannosaurus rex. These were creatures that had been haunting my imaginings since early childhood. It was fitting, then, that my companion on the trip was my oldest friend, Matt, whom I had known since I was four. Landing at Denver airport, we took possession of what seemed to us a positively sauropod-sized recreational vehicle (‘Welcome to the RV community!’ the instruction video boomed at us cheerily). A quick visit to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, then we were off. Ahead lay the open road. The badlands of Colorado and Utah, Wyoming and Montana awaited.

Naturally, I had brought large quantities of books on dinosaurs. I had also brought a range of Wild West classics, both fiction and nonfiction: The Virginian, True Grit, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Among them was a novel that I had long been saving up for the road trip: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It was, I knew, the supreme literary subversion of the myths told by America about its westward expansion. I had already read two of the volumes of the Border trilogy, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, so had some idea of what to expect from McCarthy: violence, vivid landscapes and a lack of inverted commas. Then there was the subtitle: ‘The Evening Redness in the West’. Heading into the sunset on the first day of the road trip, I realised there was no time to waste. I began Blood Meridian that very evening.

The novel, it turned out, did not feature the stretch of the American West that we had come to tour. Instead, like the two previous McCarthy novels I had read, it was set along the United States–Mexico border. The border, however, was not the mid-20th-century border of All the Pretty Horses. Instead, its backdrop was the aftermath of the American annexation of Texas in the late 1840s. This, while not an episode I knew anything much about, seemed – based on the evidence of Blood Meridian, at any rate – to have left the frontier with Mexico in a quite spectacularly savage condition. McCarthy served up the brutality in various forms. First there was a band of filibusters, whom the ‘kid’, the antihero of the novel, had joined within the opening pages. Then, descending on the filibusters, came a warband of Comanches: ‘Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.’ All the filibusters ultimately perished – except for the kid. Now, following his escape from the massacre and his recruitment into a gang of American bounty hunters led by a man named Glanton, came the meat of the novel. The kid became a scalp hunter himself. The members of Glanton’s gang, although employed by the Mexican government to hunt down Apaches, were perfectly ready to take the scalps of pretty much anyone. Their journeys across the frontier zone turned ever more murderous. They rode, they killed, they died. That, pretty much, so far as I could tell, was the extent of the plot.

Plot, however, was not the point of Blood Meridian. That much had been evident from the start. The point of Blood Meridian was terror, and grandeur, and beauty, and mystery, and creeping, apocalyptic dread. For starters, there was the language: biblical and Miltonic rhythms fused with the cadences of a frontiersman’s talk. Then there were the landscapes. Even though Matt and I were driving through Colorado, and Glanton’s gang was riding through Texas and Mexico, McCarthy’s prose, when I read it out to Matt, made us feel less like members of the RV community and more like we were lost on some terrifying frontier: ‘They rode through a narrow draw where the leaves were shingled up in ice and they crossed a high saddle at sunset where wild doves were rocketing down the wind and passing through the gap a few feet off the ground, veering wildly among the ponies and dropping off down into the blue gulf below.’ Grand though the Rockies were, they seemed positively sublime after sentences like that.

Most memorable of all, though, was McCarthy’s portrayal of a single member of the Glanton gang. Judge Holden, ‘huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant’, was a man as polymathic as he was murderous, as learned as he was deviant, as terrifying as he was enigmatic. Repeatedly, McCarthy hinted that he was more than human: a fallen angel, perhaps the Devil. Simultaneously, he seemed to be at the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. The judge knew that the earth was aeons old. He taught, a decade before Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species, that survival was due to the fittest. He understood that God spoke in stones and that the fossils of dinosaurs served as witnesses to times before human beings had existed: ‘At all desert watering places there are bones but the judge that evening carried to the fire one such as none there had ever seen before, a great femur from some beast long extinct that he’d found weathered out of a bluff and that he now sat measuring with the tailor’s tape he carried and sketching into his log.’ The judge, it turned out, was a palaeontologist.

Even in the most comfortable and familiar of circumstances, he would have seemed an unsettling figure. Out in the badlands of Wyoming, camped next to silent woods, or driving towards a dinosaur graveyard, he began to haunt us as though he had escaped the pages of McCarthy’s novel. I would read some of his choicest reflections to Matt, and then between us, very deliberately, we would work ourselves up into a panic. ‘The old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of an ancient laughter,’ I might murmur as we drove through a particularly barren ravine. At night, as we peered out nervously into the dark, I would serve up the most existentially haunting sentiments that I could find – and there was certainly no lack of them: ‘Wolves cull themselves … And is the race of man not more predacious yet?’; ‘The gods of vengeance and of compassion alike lie sleeping in their crypt’; ‘The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.’ It was very difficult to get to sleep after too much of that.

I have never forgotten the impact of reading Blood Meridian on that road trip. McCarthy’s portrayal of a cosmos fashioned by God for killing and exploitation, in which angels, perhaps, are predators and paedophiles, is one that continues to haunt me. I find that it still influences how I think about deep time, and Mesozoic fauna, and the American West, and humanity’s impact on the planet. In my imaginings, the violence of the Glanton gang bleeds into the violence with which, as palaeontologists were starting to explore the boneyards of the West, other settlers were engaged in bloody conflict with the native tribes and the slaughter of the buffalo. At the end of the novel, the kid, grown up now and become ‘the man’, meets the judge again and discovers that his old scalping companion has not aged a day. ‘He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.’

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