Though short in length, Outer Dark is a deep and lengthy exposition on the antiquated and rural American experience. McCarthy skillfully frays and interweaves a set of storylines occurring around the turn of the 20th century, though since it takes place in an isolated and unnamed countryside, it may as well be placed in the 19th century.
The story is based around the familial dissolution between Culla Holme and his sister Rinthy. Living together in rural isolation and upon the birth of her child, her brother promptly discards her child in the wilderness and sets out on an aimless sojourn for sustenance and perhaps a new set of boots; while awakened with the loss of her family, Rinthy resolves to set out and reclaim her child. Interspersed between each character’s quest is the inclusion of a band of marauding malevolence influencing the travels of each.
Progressing through the Cormac McCarthy oeuvre, I’ve come to notice certain undeniable recurrences: aimless and intentionally underdeveloped characters, no quotation marks, sparse yet colorful dialogue, dusty and nearly-deserted roads serving as the vehicle of the story, and a healthy dose of depravity. None remains lacking here.
I contend that McCarthy is just as much a writer of horror as he is of high literature in the Faulknerian tradition asserted by so many others. Outer Dark is not just a story about incest or poverty, but rather like Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, it’s about the pervasive lack of morality or injustice and the whimsical brutality so inherent to humankind. It’s about cannibalism, both metaphorical and literal; it’s about the people who are “takers”, those who are able to possess or consume others; and in McCarthy’s world, the consequences are never assumed for anyone’s actions.
Outer Dark is much starker than McCarthy’s The Road, as it establishes a post-apocalyptic environment without the fireworks or even hint of a catastrophic event. Quite simply, it isn’t needed. In that respect, it’s much more powerful and disturbing; its conclusion is the antithesis to that in The Road.