Outer Dark, published in 1968 by Random House, was McCarthy’s second novel and bears resemblance to his first, The Orchard Keeper (1965), in terms of setting and character. It, too, is set in the mountains of Appalachia, most likely east Tennessee, although in this novel McCarthy is far less specific concerning time, region, and location. Indeed, this story seems derived from the world of folklore or dream, peopled as it often is by mysterious denizens and ruled by some nightmare logic which makes one question at what level of reality the story operates.
The book begins with the birth of a child, the product of an incestuous relationship between Culla Holme and his sister, Rinthy. They live in the mountainous recesses of Johnson County (no state is named), and after the baby is born, following long labor, Culla takes the child deep into the woods and leaves it to die. He tells Rinthy the child was sickly and died naturally, but Rinthy refuses to believe Culla. She becomes convinced that her brother has given or traded the child to an itinerant tinker who had come to the cabin shortly before the birth. When she can find no trace of the child’s body in the grave Culla shows her, she sets out in search of the tinker and her lost child.
The tinker does indeed have the child, which he found abandoned in the forest glade. Following rumor of his passage, Rinthy wanders the landscape, her breasts leaking milk months after the baby’s disappearance. Culla likewise leaves the cabin, perhaps in search of his sister as he claims, although he gives no real indication that this is his purpose. The book recounts their individual journeys, both Holmes without a home or family. Rinthy, in her love and relative innocence, encounters more goodness than evil in her search, but the guilty, woeful Culla is beset by suspicion and threat wherever he goes. Constantly dogging his steps is a mysterious trio of malignant beings, given to murder, grave-robbing, cannibalism, and other outrages, for many of which Culla himself is held guilty. The leader of this group (who anticipates Judge Holden in Blood Meridian) on two occasions directly calls Culla to justice, demands that he “name” his deeds. Thus, they stand as shadow figures, images of retribution, of a dark divinity, in this story of sin and guilt.
Outer Dark shows the influence of both William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor on McCarthy’s early work. In one sense the short novel seems almost a parable, and the biblical references found in the title and throughout the story further lead one in that direction. Some have read the book as ending in despair or bleak nihilism, but, despite all of its violence and hard humor, others have found some sense of hope, of possible grace, even for a character as pathetic and lost as Culla Holme.
The preceding précis is Copyright © 1996 by Edwin T. Arnold.