Monochrome Morality
or, a review of Cormack McCarthy's "The Road" |
Editor Note by Ada Fetters

I recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
The short version: The writing is excellent in itself, though all the facts are wrong, in an odd enough way that at first I wondered if the uneven tone meant it was a brilliant parody.
The long version:
The writing itself is enthralling and I had a difficult time breaking off even though it is generally not advisable to read hopeless post-apocalyptic novels after midnight. Our two main characters, a nameless man and his son, travel the eponymous Road through a dangerous, barren landscape.
In this book the earth has suffered a massive cataclysm, the nature of which is unknown. The closest we get to an explanation is that there was a blinding flash of light, then the power went out, and the world caught fire. The man was raised and lives in the backwoods, so he and his family escaped the rioting and have some survival skills. Later we see that entire populations were caught in this conflagration, lines of burned-out cars on highways, buildings askew because their foundations began to melt. Such buildings have a glaze of melted glass on them like on a donut. Would glass quietly melt and drizzle down the outsides of buildings? or would it blow outward/inward violently and melt where it landed?
The descriptions in this book are astonishing and would be even  more so if the author cared more about how things work.
Ash and smoke blow across the earth, the planet gets colder, nothing will grow. The man and his son live off of whatever canned food they can scavenge. They nourish themselves from the remnants of a departed goodness.
Oddly, fire destroyed the world and yet the main character and his son refer to themselves as "the good guys" and "carrying the fire." While "good guys" is reasonably clear (they do not kill other people, they do not rape, they do not steal from others), they do not specify what their fire is. Or why they refer to it this way when the planet-killing blaze is enough and to spare.
It may or may not be faith in a god. McCarthy is deliberately vague. It might be hope for the future. It might be the fact that although the few people left after the end of the world as we know it have resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, even eating the few infants born, the man and his son will not do this. They do not consume their own future even though it is essentially hopeless. However, a band of people would not profit from feeding and making allowances for a pregnant woman just to eat the infant. There would be no caloric benefit from keeping a bunch of pregnant women the way readers are shown that "they" do.
According to the story the world has been this way for years... a horrifying monochrome world and gray sky. However (says the Editor, not McCarthy) there must be plant life somewhere because the characters are breathing oxygen, which would be in short supply after worldwide fires hot enough to burn cities and the decay of all the fish, since we are told repeatedly the oceans and lakes are dead, which would produce lethal amounts of carbon dioxide.
I am not a biologist or climatologist, however, I know enough not to burn a candle in a closed-off cave after a landslide. It seems reasonable that somewhere there are trees, or possibly just algae or plankton or stromatolites - the humble creatures that originally evolved in a tumultuous volcanic earth and eventually put out so much oxygen that it filled the atmosphere.
Stromatolites look like rocks, but they're our most distant living relatives. Remember, the boy born just after this disaster is somewhere between ten and fifteen, at the age when (the writer tells us) in a normal society, he'd begin to put up boundaries between himself and his father. If this scenario has been going on that long, then plant life would have to be quietly converting all that carbon dioxide into breathable air or the characters would be suffocated.
However, that isn't the point of the story. This is not science-fiction, it is horror. As Mike Nelson, Crow and Tom Servo say, "If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts / Then repeat to yourself, 'it's just a show, I should really just relax.'" 
Readers are treated - and I do mean treated, if you are a horror fan - to terrible ashen landscapes and dull red horizons. Never has monochrome been used so vividly. We are treated to an image of dead oceans with, perhaps, a giant squid in the inky blackness of the far deep. The squid is a despairing horror-thought of the man, not an actual description, so we do not need to worry about what it would live on. You see the difference here.  
However, "By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." 
Great image, except the earth goes around the sun. The sun is banished by the grey clouds, they can't see it, so this isn't just a poetic way of describing it from the characters' perspective. I know this image is very typically Irish but this summarizes the whole book for me. Mesmerizing imagery in itself, but the overarching facts are wrong to the point that they interfere with the story. I would not even mention stuff like this except that it directly affects the main characters' attitude toward the future, others, and themselves.
Yet if you can get past that ("it's just a show") you can enjoy McCarthy's euphonic prose washing over you.
McCarthy also tells readers that whatever happened, no one escaped earth. The man and his son have a conversation brought on by the saying "as the crow flies." The son wants to know if a crow could fly away to another planet, which of course it could not. It is heavily implied that man could not, either. No hope from other planets, then.
The point of this book is hope in the face of hopelessness, of love in the face of losing virtually everything else. The lifeless landscape is described such that it becomes a character in itself. The man and boy are very concerned with the quality of the road and readers soon are, too: is it clear? broken? covered in snow? in ash? does the boy need to walk in front, sweeping away charred twigs with a broom so their little cart of supplies can roll? did a fire come through recently, melting the tar so it is soft and sticky and impassable? worse, are there tracks in the soft tar, indicating that "bad guys" might be near?
And that's just the road. There is weather to be contended with, and creepy abandoned places, and burned forests, and nomadic cannibal humans. The descriptions of the people are hideous and mesmerizing.
Unfortunately there is a rather simplistic binary morality of "good guys" or "bad guys." Either you are "good" and carry the fire, or you are or you are a "bad" cannibalistic rapist. This isn't true now and isn't true when things get tough either. This affects the story more than anything else because although a horror story can get a pass on unrealistic physics or biology, a "story about goodness" (as McCarthy describes it) should be able to look at human complexity.
It is implied that the main characters are religious. They do not directly mention Jesus or Christianity, but the Christian god and heaven are talked about. The boy asks what the father would do if he died, and the father answers that he would die too, so they could be together. This is sweet in a way, a father reassuring his son in a scary world where all they have is each other. The boy's mother slashed her wrists many years ago with a shard of obsidian, after decrying the hopelessness of the situation. The man misses her, but it is implied that her choice to die with dignity is morally wrong because she had no faith.
She of little faith was physically blind, as is an old man they meet who says point-blank "there is no god."
This may be a call-back to the atheist dwarves in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle. This is a pet peeve of mine - people of any viewpoint saying that if you don't see it their way, you must not be able to see at all. 
Further: the bleak world is described as "utterly secular." Since secular means "worldly" and this word is used to describe the world, I'd say yes, that is an accurate description. Except in this case he means lifeless, hopeless, soulless.
Which it would not actually be, certainly not if the disaster left people alive. There would also be rats and cats and wolves and roaches and bacteria and miniscule plant life. Unless this deity personally killed everything except people, in which case why are we putting our hope in this monster? Eh, "It's just a show, I should really just relax." 
Things like this and the odd use of "secular" and the binary morality and the fact that McCarthy himself has some survival skills and so has got to know why you don't burn a candle in a sealed space and the "fire" paradox etc etc made me wonder if this was a brilliant parody of a fundamentalist apocalypse, rather like Cold Comfort Farm was a parody of an earthy gothic novel and Lolita was a condemnation of tyranny and the Aeneid may or may not have been a satire of Roman ideals.
Even the main character who "carries the fire: is not a good person. He protects his son but behaves appallingly otherwise. He leaves the blind old man to fend for himself and wouldn't even have shared his food or fire for one night if his boy hadn't begged him to. They see a guy with fatal burns who is still alive, staggering around in the wilderness, and the main character doesn't stop. "There is nothing we can do for him," he tells the boy (who wants to help). 
Of course a survivor needs to be practical, and as a fan of The Walking Dead I get that. However, most people would at least be torn by a tough decision. They might give the burned guy some water. That's if they were really in a hurry. If they were generous they might give the dying man a last meal or the comfort of another human being to "be with" while he dies. 
In one of the most horrifying scenes in the book they come upon a big house obviously used as a campsite, with a locked pantry. Upon prizing the door open (so he was going to steal from whoever is camping here?) he finds live captives who are being eaten bit by bit. They cry "help us" and our protagonist runs away before he can be caught by the cannibals.
After doing some more looking-into, I discovered that McCarthy is in earnest. He comes from the way back beyond of the Appalachians and did not think much of school, which explains the lack of understanding about how glass doesn't quietly melt and growing infants to eat isn't practical. He is also a recluse, which explains the uneven feel of the interactions between people.
 He once said that a lot of the conversations are based on talks he's had with his son. He really cares about his kid, that is evident. Maybe his worst fear is that he is not a good enough man to live up to his son's expectations and that is why the protagonist behaves badly. You know, that day comes (early for some, later for others) when a kid finds out that his father isn't Superman. Every child goes through this, it is perfectly normal, but what if this is the only relationship you have in all the wide world? What if a father were afraid it was his fault? In the story, the boy sees these flaws in his father and begins to put distance between them. All they have is each other so this is very sad.
I think that is what this book is really about. A man who has few relationships and when they change it feels like an apocalypse, one that he might blame himself for. After all, if your boy once trusted you implicitly and now doesn't any more, that means you had to have done something very bad, right?
McCarthy's real wife left him years ago too. She didn't suicide, but when he was still struggling to establish himself as a writer, she decided she did not want to live in abject poverty in the back woods, decried the hopelessness of the situation, and left. This story may be his way of coming to terms with that. In that way, it is not "just a show." I respect the man's emotions and experience. A recluse is deeply wounded when his few people leave. Still, I have issues with the mechanics of the book's situation in itself. If this woman was blind, in a world in which bands of people want to rape and kill and eat her (not necessarily in that order), then in "a story about goodness" room should be allowed for the opinion that she chose the lesser of two evils.
But "how would it really be if" and "how does this feel for the author" are two different things.  
The Road is powerful because it contains so much raw emotion from its author. It is McCarthy's intimate experience of his own worst-case scenario. It is a man baring his soul.
Except... it is hard for me to get past the big things that are not right, especially when some things are realistic in minute detail. The cart cannot travel if there are sticks on the road; opening decade-sealed jars of preserved vegetables is a lot of work and requires inventiveness; how to quickly and simply repair the mechanism of a cart-wheel; how it is to cut your own hair; other little things that feel genuinely real. It is the unevenness that gets to me. For example, although I did not like The Alchemist I do not criticize Coelho for  "unrealistic" descriptions of his physical world because that is a faerie tale or parable, written in an abstracted and dreamy way. The tone was correct for the story he was trying to tell. George MacDonald was fond of the idea that faeries inhabit flowers, which not a problem because again, he was writing stories about faeries. However if an author is going for gritty, apocalyptic realism, then the world should be... well... realistic. I don't expect a physics dissertation or something unreasonable since that is obviously not the point of the story but in addition to the little things feeling very real, the big, simple things should be right enough for them to not be distracting.
Further, if an author is exploring "a story about goodness," as McCarthy himself describes it, then the way people behave toward one another ought to strike a chord of realism all across the board in order to resonate properly with readers. I do not have to agree with the writer's idea of ultimate objective morality in order for them to say something important about human nature.
Yet while McCarthy's relationship between the boy and his father is heartfelt, the simple binary morality for "everybody else" is not, and detracts from the main point. The ability to handle complex emotions is uneven and finally affects the sine qua non of the story.

Words That Save A Thousand Lives |
by Chris Ozog

He told her,
her love 
was a Magnet.
And when he
got too close,
she broke like
a fragment. 
So penniless 
and indigent, 
that those 
sacred promises 
she kept locked
inside of Her 
reel of dreams, 
were sold 
to a creditor,
for some 
shattered mirrors 
and ship 
wrecked  debt, 
where she 
would starve
in productions 
marred by
Where she 
went to sleep; 
she ate her 
melancholy fate,
smeared her 
pompous sighs, 
on her shattered
porcelain  plate,
and climbed up
the hill inside 
her head,
as she slept 
In distaste,
her standards, 
and framed a
hollywood knight. 
You could reflect
without her 
but when she 
all you 
could hear,
were her infected
vowels taunting 
In the ill 
fated  night.  
Her films 
Were penciled in 
by the strokes
of unfaithful  
masquerades that 
Scribbled late
arriving loves 
until it built 
the facade
she inhabited. 
And she began 
to divorce her 
box office bombs,
and sought twenty
marbled plots, 
so she could 
one day sprout
like a field
of bouquets,
and sell
her disenchanted
soul to morticians, 
who dyed 
a blackened demise, 
In the wholeness 
of the atmosphere,
where the soil 
plummeted deeper 
into grey
inked shadows. 
Now she 
never sleeps
with dirtied 
battered realties,
and sunken 
Her scripts 
never end,
and she directs,
because she is
her sequel.
Christopher Ozog is a 22 year old writer who resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he currently attends Washtenaw Community College. He has previously been published in Burningword literary journal and the Commonline and currently edits Lavender Wolves Literary Journal. For more information, visit his twitter page

Smoke and Ashes |
by M. E. Lerman

“Will it hurt?” you ask me with a twinge of lemon.
An academic question:
It’s not happening to you.

You say a velvet prayer for me though you never say “death.”
Earthsmoke and rainforest wet like the steam rising from the coffeemaker.
The banality of ritual, the novelty of God.

You think of me like St. Sebastian, a cushion for poison arrows,
But I take my hemlock with two sugars for breakfast.
Time and I will go the same direction together until we don’t.

Out the window the crows shift leg to leg like teenagers texting before a concert.
Once my eyes were windows,
Now the windows are my eyes.

You started bench-pressing 170 so you could hold up the Earth someday,
Or catch it as it falls from the sky like a fly ball,
But even Hercules couldn’t be Atlas for long.

So you’ll run a marathon for me or sell cheesecake and wrapping paper,
Gather their signatures for a petition against death,
And maybe help someone who isn’t me scatter the crows.

The survival of a skystarry school of fish is a mystery, a sacrifice, a fact.
You will lead the future on horseback,
And I will wait for it to hurt.

Editor by day and writer by earlier in the day, M. E. Lerman has been published in Poetica Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and his work has been featured in the British Fantasy Society Journal. Also a multi-instrumentalist and amateur recording artist under the name Mike L. Rock, he lives in Rockville, MD, with his partner, Donovan, and their cat, Sa$ha. His blog can be found at

Mutants |
by Wayne Burke

As a kid
I was not afraid of ghosts;
my big fear was that I'd be beaten to death
by a psychopath.
My only defense against bullies and
whack-jobs was
to run; either on foot or bicycle.
But to stay out of danger meant
being super-alert
which was hard
I only had sugar then
to get cranked-up on.
One day, while half-asleep and
day dreaming of becoming the next
Jim Thorpe,
I was collared, on my way home from school
by Foot Ramone
who lived somewhere on the back road
and usually came out only at night.
Foot had done 3 years of 6th grade
before they kicked him out
and no one was sure if Foot was male, female, or "other."
Why Foot disliked me, I do not know--
it does not matter--he dragged me backwards
through a pond-sized ice puddle
as if trolling me for bait
then left me
and cold as a dead mackerel
on the roadside.
Wayne Burke's work has appeared in FORGE, miller's pond, and Northeast Corridor. He was poet-of-the-month in Bareback, 7-13.

Book Review: Husam Sweilah's "The Springfield Overland Trail" |
by Lala Lopezregis Dandaleiro

Husam Sweileh’s The Springfield Overland Trail is an interesting adventure early-American historical novel.  Once past the preliminary exposition, it becomes an eventful page-turner that is sure to hook fiction readers exposition.  Signaling an eventful story in the first paragraph, the novelist writes, “No trek like it had ever been heard of on the trail.”  I believe that because of its elegant style, exciting episodes and plausible content, this novel will see print publication one day.  In brief, I recommend this novel as a good evening entertainment.
I have read it three times and have given much thought to the deeper points of its internal structure and underlying logic.  Actually, I enjoyed the novel more and more as I came to see the results of the skill, effort and hours that went into making its manuscript.  The ending is an artful Hollywood-style ending with memorable feel-good events.  The main logic for the level of action in the storyline is that after the American Civil War, there was chaos in the Illinois, resulting in more criminality in the towns and on the prairie.  Even the wild animals started taking more liberties with people on the open prairie.
The novel contains a variety of dramatic events and high adventures breaking the daily travel accounts.  In the episodic plotline, the three protagonists ride a 20-day long adventure and witness dramatic happenings as they take place along the Chicago Springfield Overland Trail.  In addition, Sam Hudson lived an action-packed life previous to the beginning of the storyline. These memories are reported in the words of the third-person omniscient narrator and give deep insights.  In this episodic novel, various eventful adventures in each episode add to the overall level of excitement.
The story focuses on the struggle of three daring protagonists during their overland travel against the era's outlaws, wild animals, the natural elements and the surface terrain over twenty days in the early summer of 1868.  Had it wholly been non-episodic, the adventure would have been narrow in scope and would have appealed to a smaller sector of US fiction readers.
Unusually, this novel contains interesting historical information weaved in events, recollections, and thoughts.  One insightful sentence on the history of gold in the Near East goes “In that remote history, gold treasures were the true goals of the major wars waged between old empires, causing large-scale massacres and empire-wide devastation in which whole cities were razed to the ground.”  Nowadays it is rare to learn gritty historical facts from the works of fiction; instead, contemporary works of fiction tend to dwell on the detailing portrayals of fictional characters.  As it happens, this novel incorporates interesting passages on topics like the history of gold, epic immigrations, Rocky mountain men, Western cowhands, hunting expeditions, American Civil War, overland trekking, and frontier life.  Another insightful sentence is “He [Sam] however knew that the word "gold" alone was enough to cause murder at the hands of greedy gold-seekers.”  The novelist means that one can be murdered based on a rumor that he owns gold; in other words, even a rumored gold kills.
The novelist appears to be in love with the nineteenth-century USA and its glamorous history of all types of conflicts, which sure is suitable for fiction.  Regrettably, factual historical books focus on the contending politicians, debate issues and political parties of the nineteenth century.  Reading this unusual novel, one can see why the author loves US frontier life and its figures: the cowboy, the pioneer, the mountain man, the native Indian, the farmer homesteader, the gold prospector, the route guide, the free hunter, and the wilderness pathfinder.  Despite his personal feelings, the novelist’s tone of voice remains under control, and his mood of held emotions stays objective.  In this action/adventure novel, the novelist skillfully manages to weave in exciting conflicts of lifelike characters representing frontier figures.
On the downside, I feel that there should have been more dialogue; the dialogue is too laconic to my liking.  I however guess that the novelist might have made it laconic on purpose.  After all, dialogue is not action and weakens the excitement level; dialogue, being colloquial in style, does not admit the higher level of the formal style or literary style.  To my mind, the writer appears to like writing in a formal style, and (mercifully not all the time) in a literary style.  Indeed, he shies away from the “lean” style directed at a broader sector of fiction readers.  As I was reading author's well-edited novel, I have not noticed mistakes, and I doubt that anyone helped him edit the novel.
Another downside is that the novelist shows off some of his fair active vocabulary.  For instance, he uses some learned vocabulary including the nouns of assembly, being a subcategory of collective nouns.  In a descriptive passage, he writes, “A charm of goldfinches, a wing of shrikes, a murmuration of starlings, a watch of nightingales, a host of orioles and an exaltation of larks sang on at full throats.”  In another narration passage, he writes, “With his conversation done, Sam excused himself again and went out to try his hand at hunting, so he prowled in the pine and spruce forest, searching for a gang of elks, a covey of grouse, a leash of bucks, or a gaggle of geese.”  While these are correct terms, the author should have used such nouns of assembly more sparingly because native speakers of English rarely use, or even know, many of them. It is a learning experience but may take readers out of the story.
It is no surprise that in his debut novel, the author abides the storytelling traditions of the distinct American literature, suggesting that he is well acquainted with the literary theory and that he has read many works of fiction.  In addition to the era’s background political and social events, this delightful novel comprises sympathetic characters, vivid descriptions, a good plot, and a strong narrative drive.  Relating storyline events to similar recollections of Sam Hudson, the escapade yarn knits high-action episodes with gritty historical facts and intellectually sound insights.  A novel that is powerful, forceful and daring, I believe, appeals to a broad sector of US fiction readers.
The story is on the individual struggle of daring protagonists during their overland travel by wagon against the outlaws, animals, terrain and elements.  In the linear plotline, there are wolf attacks, trail assaults, town outlawry, rifle shootouts and draw gunfights.  As the three heroes strive against dangers down the Springfield Overland Trail, they prove to be hauntingly spirited-- notwithstanding the incessant harsh conditions.  Reading this eventful novel (with its adventurous, informative, insightful and feel-good episodes) has given me hours of entertainment.
Corresponding to twenty travel days, the novel comprises twenty episodic chapters in the self-same manner as the olden novels published in twenty installments.  Unwrapping a twentieth of the solid yarn, each chapter encompasses a day’s travel accounts and Sam’s powerful memories.  The novel paints a broad picture of the nineteenth-century United States.  Out of a fair vocabulary, the author uses the right words and neatly embeds them in elegant sentences.  Employing the third-person omniscient narrator, the author uses a literary narrative technique driven by Sam’s evolution, thereby exploring that character’s psyche in his broader social milieu.  What is more, the novelist uses vigorous compact sentences, arrives at the right level of diction technicality, and tops at vivid descriptions.  His beautiful descriptions vary each time with predominant type of description such as colors or shapes so that his writing gives sharp impressions.
Lala Lopezregis Dandaleiro is a High School Teacher of English in Springfield, Illinois, and a Graduate of the University of Illinois Springfield.

Flowers of Remembrance
(brought to you by the magic of technicolor) |
by Kristin Agudelo

1.  A twister ripped through Flanders’ fields one withered Spring, strewing poppies all the way to Araby.  They bloomed where they dropped—red petals peppering the mustard-colored earth.  No one expected them, least of all the villagers on whom the flowery plague descended.  Such a fragrant remembering, on the other side of the sky.
2.  The villagers were waking when the twister arrived bearing its harvest bouquet.  As the blossoms scattered, a yellow perfume blistered into being.  It spritzed the wrists of women donning bright dresses, dusted the bottoms of babies waiting to be diapered, and settled onto the shoulders of young men preening in front of mirrors, flexing new-found muscles.  Until now, their lives had seemed of such moderate, even miniscule proportions.  But they were about to be thrust into a grim fairytale.
3. The poppies’ perfume traveled fast from house to house, heralded by the sound of sirens: Ding dong!  Ding dong!  A young girl stepped out her door, gathered quickly that her life had spun away from her, and ran fast fast go go go go go down the brick road. 
4.  When she was far out of sight, the sky cast off its whirling cloak and retied its blue and white checkered pinafore.
5.  The survivors emerged from their homes and broke into a high-pitched keen:  ”Rub your eyes!  Get out of bed!” they cried, shaking the shoulders of their silent loved ones.  But the poppies pinned their victims under the weight of a dark scent.  Members of a concerned League were dispatched to survey the damage.  They returned recommending that a wider study of the region’s fauna be undertaken.
6. O, those poppies possessed us all.  Their pollen lulled cadres of black-shoed men into dozy heaps—so many suited scarecrows, their faces winsomed into smiles.  ”What poppies?” they yawned sheepishly, and slipped under the grey coverlet of sleep.
7. Tucked up tight, the scarecrows dreamt straw dreams:  of flying monkeys soaring far above villages, of wicked witches crushed by large, well-placed falling objects.  We will not follow the yellow brick road until we know how this story ends.
8. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  He’s well-protected in his emerald castle, his larger-than-life face floating eerily above the heads of his bowed subjects.  Besides, if he’s unmasked, who can predict what damage those two witches will inflict, with their eternal inter-coven bickering?
9. By the time the monkey fleet arrived, the wizard was gone.  Spirited over the desert in a rainbow-colored balloon, they say.  The assembly of scarecrows stood inside their newly-secured green zone, searching the sky, while an army of tin men, their articulations freshly oiled, marched through the castle gates.  In the dungeon, they found a labyrinth full of starving lions, their mustard coats mangy from the marks of electric cattle prods and duct tape.
10. It’s been many long months.  Autumn has come, and the poppies’ seed-pods nod gravely over empty village walls, forming a brown and yellow brick maze through which the young girl, alone save for a stray mutt, meanders.  She picks a sole surviving blossom and tucks it behind her ear, looks down at her calloused feet and thinks, There’s no place like home.
Kristin Agudelo grew up in Malaysian Borneo and exotic New Jersey.  She is a currently a writer and high school humanities teacher at Merriconeag Waldorf school in Freeport, Maine.  Her blog on women’s history and literature can be found at