If you like a good horror tale for the Halloween season, but you’re tired of the refried Steven King pabulum that was bland as hell even the first time around, then Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the book for you. Most people wouldn’t even consider this a horror tale, and it’s certainly not horror of the jump-out-and-get-ya variety. The book is not even horror in the supernatural sense—no zombies of werewolves here--though it’s certainly suspenseful, and I for one have always been of the opinion that there’s enough horror in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people to scare Count Dracula half to death.
We’re not exactly in the mundane world here, however: in The Road we enter a familiar post apocalyptic wasteland in which the sun is blotted out by a gray pall of fallout that cloaks the land in a nuclear winter. All plants are dead and nothing grows; there are very few living mammals, human or otherwise, wandering about. Black ash coats the land, rivers run black, and when snow falls it is gray. Through this world we follow an unnamed man and his son as they make their way south—pushing a grocery cart filled with their worldly possessions along the titular road--to escape the increasing cold of the coming winter. Dirty and haggard, half-starved, they hunt for cans of food in farmhouses and handfuls of grain on the floors of barns, hiding in ditches when other humans come by, huddling under a tarp to sleep when it rains.
Anarchy has gripped the land: bands of bloodthirsty cannibals have sprung up to hunt those lucky, or perhaps unlucky, enough to have escaped the initial, unnamed, calamity. One of the scariest scenes of the book occurs when a band of these desperate characters pass by on the road a mere thirty feet from where the man and boy lie hidden:
When he raised up to look he could just see the top of the truck moving along the road. Men standing in the stakebed, some of them holding rifles. The truck passed on and the black diesel smoke coiled through the woods. The motor sounded ropy. Missing and puttering. Then it quit....They could hear the men talking. Hear them unlatch and raise the hood. He sat with his arm around the boy. Shh, he said. Shh....He raised his head to look and coming through the weeds twenty feet away was one of their number unbuckling his belt. They both froze.
The book goes on like this from start to finish, and it’s hard to put down. I read it all the way through over a two-day period, and I’m not really a fast reader.
McCarthy is very good at description and plotting, though not so good at characterization: the two main characters, the man and the boy, are mere symbols. Although the novel purports to explore the moral dimension of survival in a post apocalyptic world, it’s parameters are overly simplistic (there is, for instance, no examination of the moral structure of the cannibal society: they are just “evil”), and at the end we are left with a rather pat and predictable reaffirmation of convention moral values. This book is thus not for science fiction fans, who will feel like they’ve been here and done this countless times before. The Road is a trash novel for the literary set: it’s not great literature by any means, but it gives you a break from D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Wolfe and takes you on a hell of a frightening joy ride. (Ed Hamilton)