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Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, is a monstrous creation of twentieth century literature, a harrowing and sprawling massacre, biblical in scale and tone. The majority of the book takes place in the borderlands of southern United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of conflict and war for land, boundaries and culture. Irregular US army outfits push into Mexico to claim land for America, encroaching on the regions of Native Americans who hunt, and are hunted by, mercenaries in the thriving market for indian scalps. More closely, the narrator follows ‘The Kid’, a young adolescent who leaves home and becomes entangled with a group of depraved scalp hunters, led by John Joel Glanton. Together, the ‘Glanton Gang’ carve a bloody swath through the borderlands, initially hunting Indians for the bounties on their scalps, before turning their guns and knives towards any living being in their path, peaceful indigenous tribes and innocent citizens, to fulfil their desire for sadistic pleasure or senseless nihilism or something else entirely.

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On criticism of McCarthy’s Western odyssey, there is none more discussed than the use of violence. Brutal, gratuitous, humiliating, terrifying, nauseating. Blood Meridian chronicles the murder of men, women and children, the rape and destruction of entire communities and towns, the scalping and mutilating of corpses who even in death cannot rest. The Wild West is a nightmare world and bloodshed is its currency, it is the. But more unsettling than any of the countless encounters which end in death and desecration, is the presence of one man throughout, Judge Holden.

Blood Meridian is full of terrible characters, and all men in this tortured land can be considered villains. McCarthy heavily researched and based the Gang’s sordid exploits on the memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue, and Chamberlain confirms he rode with John Joel Glanton and his outlaws between 1849 and 1850. The Glanton Gang’s penchant for violence is nauseating, but the role of a true antagonist in the novel is slowly but surely filled by the Judge Holden, arguably one of literature’s greatest. Shall we start with appearance? “Immense and terrible”, the judge stands at seven feet tall, massive in frame, extremely pale white flesh, and a giant dome of a head, completely bald and lacking any body hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes. He stands out of any crowd and is instantly recognisable. Holden is first encountered by the Kid early on in the novel, at a tent revival in Nacogdoches, where he incites a crowd to physically attack a preacher, and whom before being engulfed by the crowd, calls the judge out as the devil. An early glimpse that this man is capable of easily influencing the minds of men.

The reader comes to know Holden as a professional scalphunter in the Glanton gang, when the Kid and Toadvine are recruited by Glanton from a jail in Chihuahua, and while Holden’s talent for violence and killing is clear, it becomes evident that the judge is successful at anything he puts his hand to. As Tobin the expriest says, ‘a dab hand’. And through late night conversations around campfires or in darkened taverns in foreign lands, Holden displays preternatural knowledge and skill for paleontology, linguistics, law, philosophy and more. He is articulate and persuasive. His strength and movement is unnatural (he is an excellent musician and dancer) with fast reflexes and a skilled marksman. Several of the gang refer to meeting Holden at some point in the past. All agree, he seems not to age a day.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Some scholars have highlighted ‘gnostic’ elements present throughout Blood Meridian. By no means an expert, I’ve understood Gnosticism to refer to religious beliefs and systems which understand the material/physical world and the human body to contain the Divine spark, which can be translated as knowledge or knowing, and the judge represents a demiurge, the ruler of the material world, often malevolent or an archon, a kind of demon. Certainly, the nature of the judge’s chilling views suggest he holds some higher status over the human race, particularly when he explicitly expresses to want to be a ‘suzerain’.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

Whether or not McCarthy intended Holden as a gnostic archon or not, the first time I read Blood Meridian, I had a theory that the judge was,  if not the Devil himself, some other demon or evil incarnate, with whom Glanton struck a deal. The Glanton gang are gifted – miraculously talented – at killing, becoming an almost unstoppable force of merciless savagery. And for the scalps they take from men, woman and children they are rewarded with currency, food, liquor. Glanton is despicable and the undisputed leader but he seems to listen to the judge, and values keeping Holden with the gang, as evil and unsettling the presence of the judge may be. Once Glanton died, the ‘deal’ was broken, and this lead to the harrowing pursuit by Holden of the Kid and the expriest through the desert, to collect debts. Of course, this might have made sense if the judge did kill Toadvine and David Brown, but it is revealed they died the following year, hung publicly in Los Angeles. In subsequent readings the theory seems a little heavy handed, but it did make some sense when the judge returns at the end of the book to confront the Kid. Regardless, it’s clear to me the judge is not merely a man.

He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

There is plenty of speculation of the fate of the Kid, now a man, at the end of Blood Meridian. The judge appears to ambush the Kid in the jakes outside a saloon, naked, and ‘gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh’. The narrator chooses not to reveal the kid’s fate, and the only words an onlooker can mutter when witnessing the scene is “Good God almighty”. In a book which graphically depicts shocking violence throughout, something happens in the jakes that is indescribable in its horror. A haunting ending, one where the judge returns to the saloon to dance into the night, boasting that he never sleeps and he will never die.

“Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”

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James Brolin (left) plays Blane, a frequent visitor of West World who brings his recently divorced friend Martin, played by Richard Benjamin, for the first time to let off some steam. Apprehensive at first, Martin soon starts to enjoy himself.

Before creating a theme park full of dinosaurs which turned on its visitors (Jurassic Park, 1990 – and the subsequent Spielberg adaption in 1993), Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, released in 1973. A similar situation in some ways – the attractions of an amusement park end up killing the visitors. Delos is a state-of-the-art, hyper realistic amusement park for adults, with three themed ‘worlds’ to explore, depending on the visitors preference: Roman World, Medieval World and the titular West World – a Western themed area where for $1000 a day, visitors can live in an authentic experience of the lawless, thrilling cowboy lifestyle of the West.

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Androids populate West World to give a highly authentic experience – they can be killed in brawls and showdowns but are programmed to always ‘lose’ to the guests, ensuring no visitors are ever in danger of harm.

The three ‘worlds’ in Delos are populated by androids who with the latest technology are modelled to look and behave like their human counterparts from the selected era. So in Westworld, there are sheriffs, bartenders, prostitutes and outlaws. These androids are scheduled to behave in a certain way each day, serving guests, cheating at poker, starting bar fights and engaging in quick draw pistol showdowns, to create a fully interactive world for the visitors. The androids are programmed to never harm guests – they will always lose gunfights and when shot they bleed and do not get back up, dragged away by park workers to be repaired and returned to service for the next day. While Blane has visited West World several times, it is Martin’s first visit and at first he doesn’t seem won over despite the astounding technology. But after shooting an android (Yul Brynner’s ominous Gunslinger) over a disagreement over a spilt drink, and later visiting a brothel where the pair sleep with two attractive androids, Martin is enamoured by the feeling of being a real cowboy.

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Every night the damaged androids are fixed and analysed, before being wheeled back out for the next day of wild west activities.

Predictably, things go wrong. An android rattlesnake bites Blane, a seductive android rejects a visitor’s sexual advances. The Delos scientists speculate that a ‘virus’ is spreading through the androids, causing the malfunctions. Initially laughed off (how can a virus spread through machines?), the problem escalates rapidly when a knight, programmed to lose a sword fight in Medieval World, kills its visitor opponent. The technicians watch on monitors in shock, unable to shut down the androids as they begin to rampage on reserve power. In West World, the Gunslinger again provokes a now hungover Blane and Martin to a showdown in the street. Blane, assuming the Gunslinger’s safety procedures are still operational, is killed in the draw and a shocked Martin flees in terror as the android pursues him with unstoppable intensity and its heightened senses.

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Yul Brynner is excellent as the terrifying Gunsligner, a deadly and relentless android who chases Martin through West World when its programming fails.

As a film Westworld is a good, if not great, sci-fi thriller. What grabbed my attention is the ideas and concepts that are raised. Man tries to harness science, technology and artificial intelligence, fails. How aware are the androids of their ‘job’? Do the androids feel used? Do they have any understanding of their (lack of) sentience? Is there any moral implication of destroying an anthropomorphised machine, when it looks and acts exactly like a real man, only to fix and reconstruct it in order for it to be shot and killed all over again? The film barely scratches the surface of some of these questions, which is a shame as it’s a concept that really interests me.

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You might ask why I have suddenly taken an interest in a film, not exactly well known, released back in 1973? Westworld is being adapted into a television miniseries for HBO, created by Jonathan Nolan and starring Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, James Marsden and Thandie Newton. Described as “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin”, I’m hoping the extended format of a miniseries will allow some of the questions I raised above to be explored in more detail. With a talented cast and excellent directors behind the scenes (including JJ Abrams) I’m intrigued to see how such a concept is realised and investigated, over forty years after the original film was released.