Stone Rider Inspiration – Cormac McCarthy

‘They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.’

Few literary inspirations come more powerful than Cormac McCarthy. This extract from All the Pretty Horses, first book in the Border Trilogy, defines the ethos of his writing for me. It’s Old Testament biblical and it cuts to the bone. His landscapes are wide, blazing-harsh and haunting.

I suppose Stone Rider was born the day I read the final page of All the Pretty Horses. I closed the book – in about 1993 – and I saw ten thousand worlds for the choosing. My dreams from that day coalesced to one thing: publishing a novel. Something primal. Wide plains. Outsiders and loners trying to find a place for themselves in a troubled world. That’s the feeling I wanted with Stone Rider.

In All The Pretty Horses the protagonist is 16-year-old cowboy, John Grady Cole who runs away south towards Mexico with a friend, Lacey Rawlins, searching for a land where he can ride his horse uninterrupted by fences. He’s looking for a life lived to the full. What Cole discovers, however, is bad love, bloody conflict, and people made dangerous by their disillusionment. I love this idea of an uncertain future and an unbreakable human spirit. McCarthy gives his characters a restless spirit of humanity, in the face of what often appears to be an absence of hope. This is particularly true of his Pulitzer Prize winning post-apocalyptic work of genius, The Road. The harrowing story of the journey a father and his young son take across an ash-grey landscape blasted by some unknown cataclysm. Scene after scene leaves you at a loss for how McCarthy’s can illicit such horror, heartbreak and hope. I’m not a big fan of choosing favourites but The Road is up there with mine. It’s a story that haunts you. And the love the father and the son carry for each other propels you through their nightmare world with a kind of reverence for humanity. It’s this spirit I was compelled to evoke in my book, Stone Rider. A yearning for something better. The primal nature of The Road – survive and protect the ones you love – is the reason you care so deeply about the father and his son. It’s the reason you feel their fear. And the reason you’re right there with them, hiding from the bad guys.

A darker side to McCarthy’s work rises in Blood Meridian. A story that throws the reader into an uncompromising and grim vision of the west. A story that introduces us to the monstrous, Judge Holden. Huge and at the same time delicately pale, like a baby. Ancient and childlike. A true horror. There are strong echoes of this character in the Colonel Mordecai Blood character of Stone Rider. I always wanted a nemesis that acted with impunity. Someone without a moral compass. In Stone Rider the Colonel rides on the fringes, like a slow-building thundercloud out over the desert. 

I wept for the loss of the female wolf in his second instalment of the Border Trilogy, The Crossing. Here, McCarthy creates a deep affection and bond between a boy and a wolf and the power of the first quarter of the novel will stay with me forever. In fact, the wolves in Stone Rider most likely owe their origin to The Crossing.

Stone Rider owes a great deal to the power of Cormac McCarthy’s writing. The way he is able can take you on a ride into the heart of darkness, but in a way that that makes you feel a sense of wonder and euphoria rather than bleakness, despite the barbarism of his frontier worlds. If I’ve managed to capture a vestige of this spirit in Stone Rider, then I’d consider my story successful.

David Hofmeyr