REVIEW – ‘The Road’ Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Written by American writer Cormac McCarthy and published in 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf, ‘The Road’ is a post-apocalyptic tale of the journey of a father and his young son. It covers a period of several months as they trek across a landscape laid waste by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed the majority of civilization and, in the intervening years, almost all of life on Earth.The Road

The novel was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction the year it was released and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007.

Synopsis (contains spoilers)

Although an excellent story and brilliantly written, make no mistake, this is probably the most depressing and in some parts distressing book you may ever read (I will expand on why this in the recommendation summary).. ..so please take heed.. ..this is not a novel to read if your not prepared or in the right frame of mind!

The book is written in a very unique manner, as are most of McCarthy’s novels.. ..mainly written in the third person, with frequent references to “the father”, “the man”, “the son” or “the boy”.

A father and his son are travelling across a baron, post-apocalyptic landscape, some time after a disastrous, unspecified, event has lead to the total collapse of civilization as we know it. The landscape is ash laden and there is little vegetative or animal life left remaining.

The boy’s mother, who was pregnant with him at the time of the disaster, has already committed suicide after she gave up hope.. ..despite the fathers pleas for her to reconsider. As McCarthy continues to describe the landscape and the behaviour that some of the survivors of the apocalypse now display, it becomes very clear why the mother made her decision.

Food is now a scarcity and as such many of the survivors have taken to cannibalism – scouring the cities, landscape and general detritus for food.. ..any ‘food’ is now worthy of eating.

The father realises that they will not survive the impending harsh winter where they are and decides that they need to travel south, to warmer climes. They travel along empty roads towards the sea, with an old map to guide them. The few meagre possessions they own they carry in rucksacks and on old shopping trolley. Although the man is clearly dying, he protects his son from the relentless exposure, risk of attack and starvation. The man is fully aware of how ill he is, as he regularly coughs up blood. However, he is determined to reach the sea, where his son will have a better chance of survival. He keeps his frailty a secret from his son.

Despite all of these obstacles the father reassures the boy that the are “the good guys” and they are “carrying the fire”.

Their only means of defence is on old revolver, but they only have two rounds for it. During the story the father uses one of the rounds to kill a man, who stumbles across them and poses a significant threat to their lives. Upon killing the man they have to abandon most of their possessions to quickly flee from his companions. We also learn that the father has taught his son how to train the gun on himself, if necessary, to avoid being taken by cannibalistic survivors.

As they continue their journey they are literally on the verge of death from starvation when they happen across a hidden underground cache. This is presumably an abandoned survival shelter, which has amazingly been left; seemingly undiscovered and still packed with food, clothes and other supplies. Although the boy wants to rest there for longer, they move on after a few days, as the site is too exposed.

Trekking on they evade roving gangs, scrounge for food and witness horrors associated with cannibalism.. ..one of which I will leave you to discover for yourself, as I don’t really want to write about it.. ..another involves them coming across captives, who are being held simply to be harvested for food.. ..as such the man and the boy hastily leave them, where they find them.

Eventually they do indeed reach the sea, but their situation shows no improvement.

They head back inland, but the father is shot with an arrow. He soon dies, maybe due to the wound, but also possibly due to his long-term illness, which continues to worsen, unabated throughout the novel. The father has told his son that he can continue to talk to him after he is gone, through prayer.

The boy stays with his fathers corpse for a couple of days, trying to come to terms with his loss and not really knowing what to do next.

On the third day he encounters a man, whilst he is still grieving over his fathers body, who tells him he has been tracking them for some time now.. ..he also reassures the boy that he is one of the “good guys”. Helping to convince the boy of this is the fact that the man is also accompanied by a woman and two children, as such he joins them and the novel ends.

Development of the novel

McCarthy has revealed that he would have conversations with his brother about  the different outcomes of an apocalyptic event.. ..they agreed that inevitably there would be cannibalism, “when everything’s gone, the only thing left to eat is each other”.

McCarthy was also interviewed by Operah Winfrey and concluded that the inspiration for the story came from a visit to El Paso, Texas in 2003 with his own son. During the interview McCarthy insisted that his son, John Francis, was a co-author to the novel, revealing that some of the conversations between the father and son in the novel were based upon actual conversations between them. He concluded the interview by saying that he had imagined what things might look like in the future and took some initial notes.. ..this idea then rested until he was in Ireland a few years later, where he quickly transcribed the novel.. ..the novel is dedicated to his son.

Retrollection recommendation?

This is a fantastic and universally acclaimed novel, with academic as well a critical praise, as such it goes without saying that you should read it.. ..it is harrowing and not to be taken lightly, but it also offers tenderness and some hope about relationships and humanity in general. I think, for me, what makes it particularly ‘impactful’ is that is seems very real and frighteningly possible.. ..it is a reflective and fascinating insight into the delicate balance that society pivots on. In that way it is possibly one of the greatest warnings of our frailty and dependence upon each other that has ever been written.


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REVIEW – ‘The Hellbound Heart’, Clive Barker (Dark Harvest, 1986)

Hellboound Heart bookI wanted to make a start with my book reviews for Retrollection.net, so that there was a good all round summary of the type of things we were going to talk about in the blog (so forgive me, momentarily, if the current contents of the categories seems a bit thinly spread.. ..I will be adding more and more to the blog as we continue). It also gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss not only one of my favourite novels but also one of my favourite authors.

The Hellbound Heart’ was first published by Dark Harvest in 1986 in the third volume of their ‘Night Visions’ anthology.

It is a short horror novella (almost, but not quite, gothic), only 128 pages long; notorious for its content  and for being the basis of the 1987 movie ‘Hellraiser’ and subsequent franchises.

Written by Clive Barker the novella ostensibly tells the story of the relationships between Frank Cotton, his brother Rory, his sister-in-law Julia and Rory’s besotted friend Kirsty; whilst revealing the chaos that Frank brings upon them all.

It is arguably as much about relationships, lust and love as it about horror.. ..but most people just remember, or comment on, the horror. The novel also has elements of concerns about fears associated with the body; there are clear links made between this to both lust and love.. .. as such various commentators have assumed that the novella makes more than just a passing reference to the AIDS epidemic. Barker has never really commented on these interpretations, neither agreeing with them nor necessarily denying them either.

The novella is the main introduction of the Cenobites, although they are also mentioned (in passing – as the ‘the surgeons’) in ‘Weaveworld’ (which I am currently re-reading and will no doubt be talking about at some point); the main plot device being a magical puzzle box called the Lemarchard Configuration.

It was re-released as a stand-alone title in 1988 by HarperCollins, after the success of the ‘Hellraiser’ movie (which shares much in common with the novella), along with an audio book featuring Barker’s voice published by Simon & Schuster Audioworks.

The novella retains the visceral gory style Clive introduced in his excellent ‘Books of Blood’ collections.

Synopsis (contains spoilers)

We are quickly introduced to Frank Cotton who is a hedonist, having spent most of his adult life in a relentless, highly selfish, pursuit of sexual gratification and sensual overload. Frank has covered the globe in his quest and has taken part in all manner of crimes and sexual experiences; all of which have left him with severe nihilistic tendencies. Frank is looking for the most extreme experiences to push him to sensual overload, as his more normal encounters (mostly sexual) no longer give him sufficient pleasure. Frank hears rumours of a puzzle box called the ‘Lament’ or ‘Lemarchard Configuration’.. .. which, if solved, opens a schism to the regions of further experience under the disciplines of the ‘Order of the Gash’.. ..hierophants who will allow him to experience the ultimate in carnal pleasure.

Frank locates the current owner of the box, a somewhat mysterious character named Kircher, in Düsseldorf. He acquires the box by performing small favours for Kircher and subsequently returns to England with the box to his deceased Grandmother’s house.

Following Kircher’s instructions Frank constructs a small shrine to the theologians in a large upstairs room; consisting of placatory offerings including bonbons, severed Doves heads, needles and his own urine. Initially the puzzle box seems to defy logic with almost imperceptible facets. However, a chance juxtaposition of his digits allows him to start solving the puzzle box. As he proceeds the box plays a “sublime rondo” and he notes that the light bulb in the room dims and brightens in synchrony to the sound of a distant bell; there is also an accompanying smell of vanilla, as the walls of the room seem to deconstruct.

Eventually, Frank is left in a darkened room, lit only by the phosphorescence of four Cenobites, who have now come through the schism opened by his solving of the box.

To Franks utter dismay the Cenobites are not the ‘Venusian’ gods he imagined but terribly scarified beings; some of which appear utterly sexless. They acknowledge that they are not what Frank was expecting but still offer him the ultimate in sensual pleasure, warning him that if he accepts there is no going back. Frank accepts their offer and is overcome with the acute sensory perception they lay on him. But he also quickly realises that it is not sexual arousal on offer but extreme pain.. ..the Cenobites ‘spiritual’ devotion is to sadomasochism.. ..they no longer differentiate between pleasure or pain. After his sensual overload a fifth Cenobite, the ‘engineer’, duly ensnares him and takes his soul back to their realm to suffer for an eternity; his deteriorating physical presence being left trapped in the wall of the room.

At a later, initially undisclosed time, Frank’s brother Rory moves into their grandmothers house on 55 Lodovico St. with his wife Julia. Rory is unaware that Frank seduced Julia just before their wedding (revealed to be four years and five months earlier) and that she is besotted with Frank, obsessing and lusting over him since first they met. After Frank and Julia engaged in a violent illicit coupling, he quickly moves on to a place where he has not yet created havoc; Julia, mourning, then only marries Rory for financial support.

Whilst they are moving into the house Rory cut’s his hand and some of his blood spills on the upstairs room floor. This connection acts to re-establish the schism and Frank is able to gradually escape his tormentors.

Frank has been reduced to little more than a desiccated corpse by the Cenobites. But Julia finds him trapped in the damp upstairs room wall and after her initial shock and disbelief that it really is Frank, agrees to help him recover. In doing so she hopes that they can then rekindle their affair and she can finally be free of the loveless relationship she has with Rory.

Frank needs sustenance to reform his body so that he can be complete again.. ..blood will heal him and he needs it quickly before the Cenobites realise he has escaped them. As such, whilst Rory is at work, Julia heads out to bars and picks up men to take back for Frank to feed on. As the murders progress Frank’s own body slowly begins to regenerate.

However, Julia is not the only woman in Rory’s life.. ..he has a friend Kirsty who is secretly in love with him and knows that he is being used by Julia, who does not love him. Kirsty is deeply suspicious of Julia, particularly as Rory describes her recent changes in mood and attitude. As such, she suspects that Julia is having affairs and follows her.. ..to catch her ‘in the act’ and maybe win Rory for herself.

In doing so she unfortunately encounters a bandaged, but obviously skinless, Frank at the house, who attempts to kill her. In the maelstrom that follows she manages to steal the Lament Configuration and flees. She is later found collapsed from exhaustion and fright and subsequently taken to hospital.

Whilst convalescing she starts to play with the box out of sheer boredom, believing it to be an ordinary puzzle. As Frank did before her, she somehow manages to solve the box and inadvertently summons a theologian of the gash.

The Cenobite makes Kirsty fully aware of whats on offer, but Kirsty is afraid and certainly doesn’t want anything to do with it. She also realises that Frank has also opened the box, accounting for his current scarified appearance. She mentions this to the Cenobite and suggests that they could spare her if she takes them to Frank instead, as he has managed to escaped to their realm. The Cenobite agrees, but warns her that if she cheats it will “tear your [sic] soul apart“.

When she gets back to the house she initially mistakes Frank for Rory as Frank has murdered Rory and is now wearing his skin. It isn’t long before she realises her mistake and another fight ensues where Frank inadvertently kills Julia.

Now that the Cenobites know that Kirsty has correctly informed them about Frank they re-open the schism and ensnare him with hooks, dragging him back to their realm.

Upon leaving the house Kirsty comes across a dying Julia who pleads for help before also being taken into the theologians realm by the engineer. The engineer entrusts Kirsty with the box; she is to keep it until it is claimed by another degenerate. The novella ends with Kirsty looking at the highly lacquered faces of the box and seeing reflections of Frank and Julia, but not Rory.. ..she is left to wonder if there are other puzzle boxes which open the gates of paradise and hopes that Rory is in such a realm.

Retrollection recommendation?

I don’t think you need me to tell you how much I like this novella.. ..Barker’s writing is eloquent, well paced and utterly descriptive.. ..in fact there is a distinct crispness to his writing. Stephen King once said “I have seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker”, coming from King this is a compliment that cannot be lightly ignored. ‘The Hellbound Heart’ was really something quite different when it came out, taking horror in a visceral new direction. If you like horror (which I take it you do.. ..you have read this far down the review), you need to read this book!


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