The first book that turned my entire world upside down and made me realize that, y’know, not every story has to have a happy ending was No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.
See, until McCarthy, the majority of media I’d consumed was pretty clear-cut sci-fi/fantasy: there were good guys, bad guys, and funny little sidekicks that quipped and provided cute commentary (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Inheritance Cycle, to name a few).
While these stories helped me develop my moral compass and decide the kind of person I wanted to be, No Country for Old Men shook the foundation of everything I believed in. It was philosophical. It was dark. It was gritty. It was real, both in the sense that it took place in our reality, and that it was filled with real people who made organic decisions based on their personal situations. I mean, who hasn’t thought about what they’d do if they found a suitcase filled with money in the middle of nowhere with no one around?
McCarthy’s prose style is tremendously poetic. His descriptions are rich with colorful symbolism and often inform the grander narrative and character motivations. In my own writing, I strive for this level of detail, although I don’t find it necessary to be as “long-winded” as McCarthy. His dialogue often appears without quotation marks and is written with a strong sense for character’s colloquialisms. There are moments in which the characters seem to be talking about nothing—having casual conversation that all of us have every day—but he still finds a way to make it riveting. Sometimes, the lack of punctuation may seem pretentious, but it works with his overall writing style.
McCarthy incorporates the same kind of style in all of his writing. I’ve also read The Road (one of the saddest, most beautifully written books I’ve ever held in my hands), and I’m currently in the middle of Blood Meridian (definitely the most violent book I’ve ever read). McCarthy’s books are populated with uncomfortable things. People killing people. People killing animals. People thinking about the nature of existence, and what it all means, or if any of it means anything at all.
I’m currently writing a novella (a horror story about a dude with too much hair), and I often turn to McCarthy. Of the authors I’ve read, no one else executes violence so beautifully; menacing, but beautiful. His dialogue is something I try to emulate (though I’m sure some readers will find it derivative) because it’s so stripped and raw and primal.
It’s the nothingness that happens that I strive toward. The nothingness that means everything.