Even if you didn't see it, you probably heard about last year's Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men, and its bowl-haired, cattlegun-wielding antagonist, Chigurh, played to a chilling tee by Javier Bardem. But Bardem's Oscar-winning performance as cinema's strangest new villain only reinforced what fans of author Cormac McCarthy's novels already knew: his baddies are unforgettable. McCarthy writes lean-but-contemplative western-ish noir thrillers (and the occasional post-apocalyptic thriller) that eschew the easy black-hat/white-hat good guys and bad guys dichotomy. But even in the potent worlds of moral ambiguity he creates, there's always one character who stands out as particularly unsavory. Here are a few who gave us nightmares.
1. The Child from Child of God
The reader spends the first 80 pages of this novel thinking that the amoral, short-tempered necrophiliac we've come to regard as the protagonist is the titular "child," until he comes across an even more despicable character, and regards him thusly:
A hugeheaded bald and slobbering primate that inhabited the lower reaches of the house, familiar of the warped floorboards and the holes tacked up with foodtins hammered flat, a consort of roaches and great hairy spiders in their season, perennially benastied and afflicted with a nameless crud.
The Child is given a small bird to play with, and quickly sets about chewing its legs off, leaving it to "flutter about on the floor, small red nubs working in the soft down." Yeeeesh.
2. The Kid from Blood Meridian
The nameless "Kid" in McCarthy's expansive, bloody, Melvillian masterpiece is sort of a victim of circumstance. Almost apologizing for the death he will bring in the coming pages, McCarthy describes a boy born to kill:
See the child. The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
Wow. If I could write like that, I'd ... uh ... do stuff.
3. The Cannibal Gangs in The Road
McCarthy's latest novel is a Pulitzer-winning post-apocalyptic vision of the world after a holy war, and possibly Oprah's unlikeliest Book Club pick ever. After No Country proved a big hit in theaters, the film rights to The Road were snapped up double-quick, and a film version starring Viggo Mortenson should be hitting theaters late this year or early next. A departure from McCarthy's norm, the novel isn't a western -- it's set in the south, or the burning wreckage of what's left of it, and concerns the seemingly hopeless journey of one man and his young son south along a smoking highway toward the sea, where maybe things will be better. On their journey they come across all manner of horror wrought by human desperation (everyone is starving; good and evil have long since gone out the window), the main perpetrators of which are roving gangs of armed cannibals, who will enslave and slowly devour any living souls they happen upon. As McCarthy describes them, they're a perfect vision of sci-fi horror:
They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe. Coughing.
Soon, we get a close-up view of one of them:
Eyes collared in cups of grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes. He wore a beard that had been cut square across the bottom with shears and he had a tattoo of a bird on his neck done by someone with an illformed notion of their appearance. He was lean, wiry, rachitic.
Of course I had to look up "rachitic," which Merriam-Webster says comes from the Latin rachitis, an inflammation of the spine, adopted into English for its similarity to "rickets."
4. Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers dressed him in a jean jacket and a bowl haircut, but in the novel, McCarthy hardly describes his most famous villain at all. The few mentions we get come from other characters who encounter him, usually right before they get an airgun shot to the forehead. In more than 300 pages, this is just about all we get: "The man looked at Chigurh's eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones." Then later: "Blue eyes. Serene. Dark hair. Something about him seemed faintly exotic. Beyond Moss' experience." And one mention of his attitude: "He seemed oddly untroubled. As if this were all part of his day." Like he's an alien, or some force of nature. Very nice, McCarthy. Very nice.