Got No Sugar Baby Now

Outer Dark insists upon its own nightmare, exhibits the logic and fractured narrative of a fever-dream and exposes the reader to scenes and images lifted from some hillbilly Disasters of War; except without the war or the disasters, just the threat. The inhabitants of this outer dark are too diffuse, too fated to bother with anything as motivated or focussed as atrocity. Until the last chapter, anyway.

I would compare it to Heart of Darkness but that novel at least has a sense that the darkness has a point of entry. From the moment the two protagonists of Outer Dark listlessly perform the birthing of their incestuous child and then the father, Culla Holme, takes the infant out to die in the woods, we are not invited to witness a descent or burrowing into some dark place, as Marlow allows us to travel. The darkness is everywhere. Heart of Darkness offers up such memorable observations as this, off the top of my head:

“We live as we dream: alone’

Clear statements based on new experiences suggesting that, whilst Marlow is undoubtedly heading towards the horror, the horror, there are other places. In contrast, Outer Dark gives us exchanges such as this, which follows a discussion of the ‘mulefoot’ hog’s place in Old Testament laws on cloven feet:

Makes ye wonder about the bible and about hogs, too don’t it?

Yes, Holme said.

I’ve studied it a good deal and I cain’t come to no conclusions about it one way or the other.


It isn’t a frightening novel. How can there be tension when there is no safe place from which the reader can be ambushed? Like Titus Groan or, even more, Titus Alone, the world we’re presented with is sick in essence, corrupted at an atomic level; it’s too alien, the language too flamboyantly gothic for any bad deed or turn of events to ever shock us. But it is a successfully contaminating novel, as one can only assume the author intended it to be.

I’ve encountered this blank-faced Appalachian nightmarism before; in the music of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and, more particularly, in the songs of Dock Boggs. Boggs recorded a handful of sides for Brunswick in the late 20s. Boggs’s short first career (he was amongst those ‘rediscovered’ by enthusiastic folk scene folk in the 1960s) was similar to many of his contemporaries’ but his songs were not. Greil Marcus gives him a dignified, compelling portrayal in Invisble Republic but it’s one Song, Sugar Baby, where Boggs gives a contemporary voice to the fantasia of Outer Dark.

Just as Outer Dark takes for its heart a broken, doomed family – the baby is lost, the mother/sister escaped and hunting the baby, the brother/father hunting the mother/sister – so Sugar Baby communicates a similar, if more domestic sense of unbearable ties and unbearable divisions.

Over a banjo that always makes me think of dancing skeletons and meant – first time I heard it – that I would never laugh at the instrument again, Boggs threatens and mocks his scolding partner. Marcus describes him as singing ‘like the bones are trying to escape from his face’, or something similar. I have never heard a song that so perfectly captures the tone of male domestic shame and rage. Boggs parrots a nagging voice.

Who’ll rock the cradle, who’ll sing the song?

Who’ll rock the cradle when I’m gone?

His response is far outside the boundaries of any other early folk recordings I’ve heard and, whilst lacking the dramatic extravagance of Holme’s solution to domestic ennui – leaving the baby out in the woods to die – Boggs’s is the same in spirit; both self-pitying and cruel:

I’ve done all I can do, said all I can say

I’ll send you to your mother next payday

Christ, Appalachia must have been the pits. The song, like the characters and landscape of Outer Dark, is both defeated and savage. When I next hear Dock’s banjo staggering and leering out of the speakers I will likely picture the sea of mulefoot hogs that stampedes a ravine-path towards the end of Outer Dark, many of the animals spilling into the river below, taking a drover with them.

Outer Dark presents us, like Heart of Darkness, with a journey through a land where Ovid’s Plague of Ageina seems to have been taking place so long that everyone at first started treating it as normal and then absorbed it, made it part of themselves. It is dotted with ever-more decayed and impotent institutions, an enthusiasm for arbitrary punishment and foam-flecked magical thinking being the only dynamic or uniting social forces. And in that, at least, we can find some common ground with Holme, Rinthy and Dock.



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12 responses to “Got No Sugar Baby Now

  1. mishari

    Yes, the language veers between baroque and laconic, doesn’t it? I thought McCarthy very successfully created a feeling of suffocation, lightless and airless and, perhaps, even more disturbingly, seemingly completely irrational.

    I thought that the passage were Cullah encounters the men camped by the river who, although it’s never baldly stated, I’m convinced are cannibals. I found it very creepy indeed.

    As you say, McCarthy (and Boggs) make Appalachia sound absolutely fucking awful, which by all non-fiction accounts I’ve read, it was and is. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book. I hope you didn’t feel it was time wasted.

  2. mishari

    PS-I think you want to turn off that “possibly related posts” nonsense. I mean, ‘What’s your worst baby poop story’?

  3. @Mishari

    Thanks again for the book. Was it time wasted? Absolutely not. This kind of infected world is much closer to what I naturally create; one of my MSs – long ago rejected – aimed for a similar total immersion (and was inspired by early folk ballads). I love (?) these worlds; the Peake comparison is, for me, a huge compliment.

    What that says about me is another matter.

    I don’t think he would get published with something as undriven and bleak as this; not today.

    The trio of itinerant furies do seem to be cannibals. In one of the final scenes, around the campfire, I felt thoughts of Goya were intended – Saturn Devouring His Children in particular.

    Yes, re the awful related posts. I had a look last night but was tired and got nowhere. Will try again.

  4. mishari

    Well done for spotting the Goya echo, which had escaped me. I think you’re absolutely right and that it was intentional. McCarthy is, after all, a highly educated man.

    Have you read McCarthy’s (for me) magnum opus, Blood Meridien? It’s more violent, more bloody, more gothic and painted on a much larger canvas (the Old West and Mexico). Even the landscape, although beautiful (and McCarthy describes it wonderfully well) is malevolent. Highly recommended.

  5. I haven’t read it but Outer Dark has certainly given me a taste for more McCarthy. I’ll have a look in Another Country once I’ve taken their Ionesco back. I’m enjoying reading more literary work after a year of James Herbert, Dennis Wheatley and their ilk. Do you know the Harry Smith anthology,Mishari?

    Also, in fairness, I should have noted that Rinthy receives much kindness on her journey.

    I may use this space to expand on what it might be that’s so compelling and satisfying – for me anyway, and I don’t think I’m alone – with these overwrought yet beautifully imagined gothic worlds. Bodies swing from gallows, everyone is damned or demonic and yet it taps into…into something that even the ‘bad’ art – Fuseli, Lovecraft, perhaps – accesses with far greater force than more balanced work. Perhaps it’s the very unbalancing, the surrendering of logic and ‘good taste’ that enables some other, more reptilian and superstitious, parts of the brain to sneak into the party and start drooling on the h’ors d’œuvre.

  6. mishari

    I know the Harry Smith Anthology well and have the CD set. A priceless archive. I’m a great admirer of McCarthy. I’m aware of the minor flaws (over-wrought Old Testament-style purple passages, for example) but even the flaws, if they sre such, are consistent with his general style. He’s never written anything that wasn’t worth reading, in my opinion.

    Keep an eye out for Child Of God, another example of Southern Grand Guignol that I think you’ll like very much. A strange, solitary bumpkin murders a couple parked in a lover’s lane and takes the girls corpse home with him. They…erm…bond. Grimly funny and horrible. What really strikes me is McCarthy’s–I don’t know if compassion’s the right word–but relatively unjudgmental stance. Again, highly recommended.

  7. I’ve always felt that Almodovar has an uncanny ability to remain unjudgemental about his characters; not in a love-the-villain fashion but in a way that allows us to watch the most extraordinary and vile actions and decisions with, if there is such a thing, detached compassion, rather than revulsion or judgement. Talk To Her comes to mind.

    It’s about innocence, I think; a slippery term and one I think about a lot. Holme and Rinthy seem innocent at core, somehow, whilst, for example, Humbert Humbert does not. Perhaps its how a character’s understanding of the meaning of their actions is shown.

  8. ISA

    But why is Appalachia so dark? Look at the Amazon. There people are supposed to live in harmony with Nature. In appalachia it’s all extreme poverty and cruelty. What separates an Amazon Idyll from an Appalachian Nightmare?

  9. Hi ISA, nice to see you here!

    ‘What separates an Amazon Idyll from an Appalachian Nightmare?’

    The Bible?

  10. ISA

    I think what seperates them is the memory of the City. The feeling of shrunkenes. And as we all know a feeling of shrunkeness leads to drunkeness.

    Or perhaps there were very very bright notes. The notes of sun glimmer though pine, fiddle playing, the other side of the coin of intimacy. A closeness to the processes of life and death.

  11. ISA

    Baron, Exit,

    It’s quite lonely to blog on your own and you end up with you and your circle of like minded chaps and chapesses. Multiblogger plaforms are taking off at the moment in magazine formats.

    The idea is to kind of focus on one area, but in fact you are free to write what you like. It’s no big deal so long as you contribute with one article of your own a week – around 500 words, with or without a pictures.

    Basically, I – I would prefer Baron to do this – set up a page. Eveyone gets a log in. There is an editor involved so it is preferable that everything gets sent to him to be subbed and topped and tailed.

    But if you are very precious, in a good way of course, about conserving your words, then you can just upload it.

    Your articles can be prefaced by the title of your own blog and linked to it. Or you could just use your by-line.

    You can also comission (no money involved) other people to write articles for you and give them a by line.

    The point would be to generate interesting content.

    I think we could make quite a splash and even get the Guardian to do a story on it or link to it or something.

    And it wouldn’t be so lonely or cliquey

    Of course if someone else wants to set it up then I will follow as a contributor.

    In this arrangement noone would be privileged.



  12. Hi ISA

    As we’ve discussed before, I would be interested in a project like this. I think each author having a particular focus/area of inexpertise is a good idea.

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