1. FireWater

    FireWater Senior Member

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    I just read "The Road" and it terrified me more than any other fictional novel

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by FireWater, Jul 19, 2017.

    For the most part, I'm very difficult to scare, especially in terms of books and movies. Generally, whenever I'm expecting to be scared or whenever there's a lot of hype, I finish the story and think "Huh? That's it?" That feeling is almost a disappointment in a horror story - when you're prepared to be chilled down to the core of your bones, but it's anticlimactic when it never happens. That was my experience with "The Exorcist," "It," The Shining," every single demon/haunting/doll movie or slasher killer suspense with stupid jump scares, etc. There are only 5 movies and 4 books that have genuinely terrified me on a deep level that disturbed me after the story was over. The factors that those stories all had in common was that I never originally expected any of them to haunt me, so it caught me off surprise when the horror took over.

    Enter Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." I read almost the entire book in the course of a few days. I had known the gist of what it's about (a father and young son traveling on an abandoned rural road in a post-apocalyptic setting), but had always had the impression that it was less raw and more abstract: a lot of philosophical musing about end-of-world morality that took place mostly inside of the characters' heads. I have no idea why I had thought that, maybe because of how it was described, but it was an extremely raw story that packed a huge punch.

    In this story, the main antagonists are
    cannibals
    - a threat made all more easy to dread because, unlike a ghost or curse or monster in another world, they are real and thus could theoretically happen in our own world. However, this is the first time in a story that a real-world antagonist seemed more scary than a well-done demonic/otherworldly. In "The Road," the antagonists are far scarier than your run-of-the-mill slasher killer with a messed up backstory. What made them so scary to me were:

    1) The philosophy/spirituality (and I'm not even religious) of the way they are human and inhuman at the same time. While still technically people, they're the epitome of evil. And unlike Ramsay Bolton or the Joker, who are psychopaths that kill for the power/fun of it and seem too satirical to really scare anyone, the antagonists in "The Road" have devolved into monsters for survival. The book makes a clear distinction -- those who maintain their humanity even when facing death, and those who become beasts and predators in order to "survive." But once you've lost your humanity, you're not a human anymore, so if you're still alive then what really are you?

    2) The silent yet menacing way they come across, when the protags see them in their car caravans and marching in a war gang. While mainly seen from afar, they're portrayed as being almost mechanical as they clutch pipes, spears, guns and other weapons while dragging chained victims behind them. Most killers, like in American Psycho for instance, will act charming on the surface and at least maintain the appearance of humanity (so you don't see the true evil underneath). But the antagonists of "The Road" don't bother trying to hide their hideous core, and they have the numbers and power to mostly not need to. Think of the most scary-looking boogeyman you imagined in your closet as a kid, and then imagine it stalking you through the forest....these people are ten times worse.

    3) "The basement scene" - the most disturbing scene from any fictional story that I've ever watched or read.
    While out of supplies and desperate for food, the main characters break into an abandoned mansion to see what they can get. The man sees this as necessary exploration for food/supplies they need, but the boy has a terrified gut feeling and keeps trying to make his dad leave the house. Eventually they come to a basement and the father starts prying open the trapdoor, while the son freaks out worse and worse.
    They go into the basement and see what's inside. A bunch of assorted people who are naked, starving, and missing various limbs and chunks of flesh that have been cauterized. Cannibals own the house, and trap their victims to keep in the basement as human livestock so that they can take pieces of meat as needed while keeping their meat fresh. The people in the basement had no hope, the full fear of knowing they're slowly being literally eaten alive, and no way to escape.
    As the dad and son are fleeing, the cannibals return to the house - they set up the house with booby traps to alert them when someone walked in, and they know that they are there. The son and dad narrowly flee out a window and escape into the woods, while the cannibals unsuccessfully try to hunt them down. While they're hiding, the father tells the son they have to shoot themselves if they get caught, or else they'll meet the fate in the basement too.
    The whole scene is just mind-blowingly disturbing to me, especially imagining what the victims/food-source people must be experiencing. If you have no hope, no escape and are being literally eaten by human monsters piece by piece while being kept alive long-term over the course of several weeks or more, then you aren't really alive at all...and these people weren't. They had turned into desperate, pathetic, already-dead souls.[/spoilers]
    I cannot think of anything more hellish than that.

    But in addition to the horror, "The Road" does end on a very hopeful and positive, although bittersweet, note. The man and boy maintain their humanity and ethical decency throughout the dehumanizing nature of the apocalypse, which is their ultimate victory in the end. They are empowered - the young son, who serves as the father's moral compass and reason to live, acts truly like a compassionate Christ-figure and is even implied to be divine goodness.

    "The Road" is not a religious book, and I am a non-religious person, but it does deeply go into spiritual themes -- in the face of the worst catastrophe and desperation possible, some people will become evil in order to try and survive it, while the true heroes will refuse. This is portrayed in a subtle and graceful way, without any heavy-hammering, in a literary style that's poetic and moving.

    Easily best (and most disturbing) book I've read in a long, long time.
     
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  2. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Supporter Contributor

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    This is one of my favorite books of all time. I understand how you thought it would be more abstract, as I've seen many of those reviews as well. I think people tend to focus on the horror. I've seen many reviews that have called it disgusting, and plenty that have said it's the most depressing work they've ever read. I don't understand that. I think it's a beautiful expression of humanity and love. Yes, it's awful, and many parts are visually (in your mind) terrifying, but I've always seen it as a love story. A fathers love for his son. People claim that because he tells his son to shoot himself instead of the antagonists, it's because he doesn't value life, but I think it's because he does, and in the scenario they're in, if it happened, dying would be the only way to continue living.

    Also, there's a 3rd type of personality you've neglected to mention - the one who can't handle making the choice.
    The mom/wife

    *edited for clarification of a thought
     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2017
  3. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin There's no basement in the Alamo. Contributor

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    That's because those other books are all make-believe. Monsters, demons, even human killers to an extent... they're just props. Sure, they might be scary in an immediate, leap-from-the-page sense, but it ain't like they'll keep you up at night. The heavy-weights like McCarthy or Toni Morrison, however, tell stories that make you question your humanity. Real "what-if" scenarios with real emotions instead of "what would I do if I was confronted by a killer clown." Not that It didn't scare the shit out of me when I was 12, but nothing like The Road when I was 35 and knew a thing or two about people and what happens to their baseline psychology when separated from societal constraints.

    Don't know if you've read it before, but check out McCarthy's Blood Meridian if you want a real horror show. It makes The Road read like Mary Poppins. It's nowhere near as intimate but the level of violence has to be read to be believed. That was one of those books I'd heard about for years and didn't think could ever live up to its reputation. Nope. It was worse. Way worse. Truly vile. Good times!
     
  4. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Supporter Contributor

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    I tried reading Blood Meridian a long time ago. I didn't get through it. Challenge accepted!
     
  5. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin There's no basement in the Alamo. Contributor

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    It's not an easy read at all. More of the old school Faulkner McCarthy style than the 21st century accessible McCarthy.
     
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  6. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Supporter Contributor

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    That's okay. I don't like easy reads :) It was the imagery I didn't handle well at the time, and I honestly don't remember why.
     
  7. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Supporter Contributor

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    @Homer Potvin Actually just read the first two pages on Amazon, absolutely certain I won't have any trouble reading it stylistically. Imagery wise? We shall see. o_O
     
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  8. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin There's no basement in the Alamo. Contributor

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    Keep going. It gets really cerebral. Stephen King actually excerpted it in On Writing as an example of incomprehensible prose, haha...
     
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  9. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Supporter Contributor

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    It's weird that I like that stuff isn't it? ;) I think, done properly (which I have no idea if it is or not, since I've not read it) incomprehensible prose shows the confusion/turmoil/trauma of the narrator in a way that 'He babbled incoherently' just can't. Unless that's not how it was done, of course.
     
  10. FireWater

    FireWater Senior Member

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    Trish, I sent you a PM about the scarier parts of The Road.

    Also,

    Don't they only have like 1 or 2 bullets? I thought they started out with just a bullet for each of them, minus the one used when the man shot the attacker towards the beginning. If they were to shoot, say, the cannibal group, they'd never have won with a huge group of enemies and just 1-2 bullets.
    Isn't that why the dad made fake bullets with wood - to give the gun the impression of being full when it wasn't?
     
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  11. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Supporter Contributor

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    I got the PM, but I don't know that I'll have a chance to answer you tonight (but I will answer you). Yes, they had 2 after the wife thing. Then 1 after the attacker. Well, there is the impression of him doing it to make it look better, but I think psychologically he was doing it to make himself better. You know 'boil a pot of water when the baby's coming' kind of thing. It's not really helpful, but at least you feel like you're doing something.
     
  12. FireWater

    FireWater Senior Member

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    Exactly. So with just 1 bullet, it's not possible for them to have shot at their antagonists. Even if they were willing to part with a bullet, one shot would do nothing against a stronger group.

    Also, a point I forgot to make before with the cannibals was that, ultimately, a member of a cannibal group has no protection against the group turning on them. If the group is willing to do it at all, they'll also have no problem doing it to one of their own. So if a cannibal group member becomes annoying to the others, or has any type of conflict or even just takes up too much resources, they'll be in that basement themselves, and their willingness to resort to evil will have been for nothing in the end.
     
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  13. Trish

    Trish Damned if I do and damned if I don't Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. I feel like I'm missing your point here? Are you saying you don't understand why they were even discussing it?

    I think this is the case with all such groups. You are only useful as long as you are... useful. That's not specific to this group, it's fairly universal as far as power-centered groups go I think.
     
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  14. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Member Supporter

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    I love this book. It's one my favorites. I read it when my son was born (and if I remember right, McCarthy wrote it similarly for himself). For that reason I've always seen it as a story about a parent's greatest fear. The world hates the father and cannot wait to use him, and somehow this man must survive for the sake of his son, and impossibly, teach him how to survive pure menace. When he's gone, will his son know enough to make it? Because the guy can barely make it on his own. It's all a metaphor for a father raising his child. Even the name of the book: the "Road" could be called the "Journey." It's about his fear that he cannot teach his child what's important.
     
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  15. FireWater

    FireWater Senior Member

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    There's one question that has been bugging me above all others:
    How were the basement victims kept alive/What were they eating?

    If they're being offed one at a time, and slowly in parts, some of those people will be down there for weeks or maybe even months (?). They can't become too skeletal, or else there will be no meat to be eaten. So what are they being fed, if there's no food and they ARE the food?

    Anyone have theories on this?
     
  16. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Member Supporter

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    If there's only one source of food, I suppose they'd be eating the same thing as everyone else.

    When I came across The Road I was doing history research on Stalin's political internment camps. It was less horrifying to see this sort of thing going on in a hypothetical world than knowing it had legitimately happened in the world in recent history and was probably still going on elsewhere in the world.
    In the northern Gulags, victims of cannibalism were called bychok, or a calf and fatter prisoners were referred to as a "walking supply." Someone who carried the food for you until you needed it.
     
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  17. thirdwind

    thirdwind Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm glad you enjoyed it. This was my first introduction to McCarthy, and I absolutely loved his use of language, which made the book even more frightening. Have you seen the movie at all? I thought they did a good job of capturing the horror and bleakness of the book, though some of the more powerful scenes from the book were lost in translation (which is to be expected).

    Oh, and just in case you're looking for something similar, I highly recommend Jose Saramago's Blindness.
     
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