The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the most frightening book I have ever read. I’ve only read it once, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read it again, even though (or rather: because) it’s also one of the most well written books I’ve ever read.
Why is this story so scary? It’s set in a bleak and desolate post-apocalyptic world where everything seems to be dead or dying. Civilization as we know it has been obliterated by some unknown calamity that is never really explained. Human society has been destroyed. Nature has been destroyed. There are no animals, no plants. People are sick, crazed, scared, brutal. They scavenge for food from old houses and towns, or have resorted to cannibalism.
In this world, a man is traveling with his son. They are walking, because there is no other way to travel. They are hungry and thirsty and tired and scared. The people they meet are all potential killers and thieves. There are no safe places, no relief, no salvation. The only comfort they have, is that they are together. But the man is ill, dying, and the blackness looming over them right from the start is that the man will die, and that the boy will then be all alone to face the terrors of this terrible new world.
Reading this book, I was overcome with such an intense feeling of dread and darkness that it actually made me feel depressed. After each reading-session I’d crave silly, bright, fluffy things: Carebears, unicorns, rainbows, sunshine.
McCarthy’s language is terse, strange, and harsh, yet evocative and oddly beautiful at the same time. It puts you in that place, in those people’s minds, so that you feel it all in your own body:
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
As a parent, one of my deepest, darkest fears is that I’ll die and leave my kids all alone in the world. That thought is one of my ultimate nightmares, and that is the nightmare this story revolves around.
Making things worse is that in The Road, everything that might have made that nightmare somewhat bearable has been stripped away. There are no animals or plants, so the boy will not be able to fend for himself by learning how to hunt and gather. There is no society, no family or social safety net or neighbours or state to take care of anything, let alone the boy. Instead, there are roaming gangs of cannibals who are like zombies, but much more terrifying because they are human beings.
The man is living this nightmare. He can’t escape it. The agony of being that parent, in that world, is what makes this story so completely and utterly terrifying to me. Would this story still be as frightening to me if I didn’t have kids of my own? Maybe. I didn’t read it until I was a mom, so I can’t be sure, but I do think it’s the kind of story that really gets its claws into you in a painful way if you have children.
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
This is a great book. I probably won’t read it again, but I highly recommend it.
This post was originally published at my personal blog: Kids. Food. Life.
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