Zeitgeist of Doom

When I was a child, my favorite show was Thundarr the Barbarian, a cartoon about a muscled warrior who wears furry underwear and battles wizards and monsters in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I grew up on a ten-acre lot choked with pines, and I would hike the game trails that snaked through it and imagine myself as Thundarr, a survivor, one of the last men on Earth, my only companion a German shepherd whom I renamed Ookla and liked to think of as a kind of wookie. Together we would track deer and scavenge for berries. I would pretend a baseball bat into a glowing sunsword and I would knock the limbs off trees and slash open the bellies of rotten stumps.

In high school, I read a dog-eared copy of The Stand over and over, until its ink smeared away against my fingers and its pages came unglued and fluttered to the floor. I never grew out of the fantasy.

But I am not alone. The Facebook group “The Hardest Part of a Zombie Apocalypse Will Be Pretending I’m Not Excited” has (at last count) 87,345 members. Nostradamus’s doomsday prophecies air regularly on cable. A fashion label called Scrapland produces a post-apocalyptic clothing line with mutants and mushroom clouds silkscreened onto t-shirts. The other day at the coffee shop, I overheard a conversation about the end of the world. “I’d go to Costco,” a twenty-something with shaggy sideburns and black-framed glasses said. I’m not sure if he pictured a meteor striking or a plague spreading, maybe a nuclear holocaust, but he had a plan. “And I would stack a bunch of stuff — like, tires and dog food and stuff — at the entrance. And I would eat granola bars and drink Vitaminwater until the coast was clear.” The young woman next to him took a sip of something frothy and raspberry flavored and said, “Screw Costco. Go to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart’s got guns.”

Pleasuring in Armageddon is nothing new. For years the public has gobbled up scores of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives like crazed end-of-the-world cannibals served an appendage braised with ginger — and titles like The Last Man, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mad Max, Escape from LA, Soylent Green, Terminator, and The Stand endure as campy classics. But the past few years seem especially flooded with a black-watered tide of novels and films and video games. Oryx and Crake, Resident Evil, World War Z, 28 Days Later, The World Without Us, Children of Men, Far North, 9, The Book of Eli, Zombieland, 2012 — to name a few. Exterminating mankind has never been more popular. And it’s no wonder.

Low-flying airplanes make people shudder. Ice caps melt and sea levels rise and the weather grows wilder, more erratic, as hurricanes swirl darkly out of the ocean and wildfires blacken hillside neighborhoods and tornadoes uncurl from the sky to vacuum up houses and cars and trees. The faces on subway cars are hidden behind surgical masks. Another suicide bomber detonates on a crowded street in Baghdad. Reservoirs and rivers go to dust. The stock market collapses. Suicides spike. Subdivisions are wiped out by foreclosures, their once immaculate lawns overgrown with weeds, their windows black and watchful.

The best horror stories take a knife to the anxieties of a time. Look at Dracula and the repressed sexuality of the Victorian era, Frankenstein and the scientific progress of the Industrial Revolution. Look at George Romero and his Living Dead series, its calendar of political commentary (1968’s Night: civil rights; 1978’s Dawn: consumerism; 1985’s Day: cold war). Look at the torture porn of recent movies like The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel and Saw, all of them intrinsically coupled with the grainy photos from Abu Ghraib, the video of Daniel Pearl’s beheading. And so apocalyptic thought, the end-of-days fantasy, is the emotive product of our present reality.

And The Road is its signature text.

Most readers will be familiar with the story of the man and the boy — starved, exhausted, poisoned by fear — trudging across an ashen wasteland, evading thieves and gangs of cannibals, seeking out civilization in a world ravaged by an unexplained cataclysm. The 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy offers a grim deposition about “the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth . . . the crushing black vacuum of the universe.” McCarthy has always written in the naturalistic mode — with man struggling against nature, trying to survive a universe at worst hostile and at best indifferent to his fate. And yet, despite the nightmarish circumstances, love stubbornly endures, making The Road McCarthy’s most hopeful (and popular) novel.

Years ago, while watching the sunsoaked, blood-soaked film The Proposition, I turned to my wife and said, “This is like a Cormac McCarthy novel.” I wasn’t just talking about the horses and the six-shooters, the unforgiving landscape — it was more the mythic tone, the moral relativity, the hazy boundary between civilization and savagery. So I was thrilled to hear that the film’s director, John Hillcoat, had taken on The Road as his next project. This was of course before the Pulitzer, before Oprah, before No Country for Old Men won an Oscar. Before the studio execs realized they had handed over one of the most anticipated adaptations of this time to a no-name director — and long before they began their post-production meddling. (The film, originally scheduled for release in November 2008, was pushed back to December, and then pushed back again to October 2009, and then pushed back again to Thanksgiving.) I didn’t know what to think when I stepped into the darkened theater and took my seat.

I didn’t know whether my love for the novel predisposed me to hate the film — or adore it. I didn’t know whether all the noise about post-production squabbling would interfere with my ability to remain open minded, allow the images on the screen to wash over me freely. I still didn’t know what to think, two hours later, when I staggered out of the theater jittery and short of breath. I felt carved out, mindless.

When someone laid a hand on my shoulder and asked what I thought, I nearly slugged him. I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to hide somewhere, nurse a beer, recover. Because the film, like the book, is a visceral experience.

I was father to a newborn in 2006, when the novel first hit bookstores. Back then everything seemed a threat — traffic, dogs, germs, the corner of a coffee table — and I spent a lot of time clutching my son, saving him from the perceived dangers of the world. The novel struck an exposed nerve. When reading it, I felt — for the first time in a long time — fear. The paralyzing kind that kept me up all night as a child, certain that a pale-faced, long-fingered demon would come slinking out of my closet the moment I shut my eyes. And during the film that old fear welled up inside me again.

When a mossy-toothed cannibal lunges for the boy with a knife. When bodies dangle from the crossbeams of a barn. When the man teaches the boy how to blow his brains out with a pistol or when the two of them creak down those cellar steps into a coffin-black darkness. When you realize, from a faded billboard or an ash-coated can of Coke, that this world is not a long way from ours. Yet two of the most horrifying scenes in the novel — when the skylight of a semitrailer reveals stacks of desiccated corpses and when a mother gives birth to a child only to cook it on a spit over a fire — are absent. Even the reluctant reader must admire the way McCarthy stares into the abyss and doesn’t blink, doesn’t waver, as the film occasionally does.

Never is this more evident than in the closing scene. Its cloying piano music and damp-lipped smiles and heartwarming dialogue could have been lifted from an episode of Touched by an Angel. Moments like this, I suspect, are the fingerprints of studio execs uncomfortable with the more abbreviated and somewhat ambiguous conclusion to the novel.

I feel about the ending the same way I feel about the pushy score and hypercolor flashbacks and the flat, unnecessary voiceover — that the film seems to fear the novel, its stillness and silence, the pain and repetitive drudgery of the long walk, the passages that linger on snow and rain and fire. We need more of these quiet spaces. Quiet will make us more aware of the bitter cold, the gnawing hunger, the endless march. Quiet will make us listen to the hissing of the wind, gaze intently at the blackened fangs of trees. People whistle their way past graveyards for a reason: terror hides in the silence.

There is a definitive moment, early on in the film, when a forest rises up in a roiling wall of flame. The man and the boy stand a hundred yards away, statue-still, their faces dimly lit, overwhelmed by the terrible beauty of what they are witnessing. There are no voices — or pianos — telling us how to feel. The image is enough. The same is true of the man, in his ruined childhood home, slowly flipping over a flower-patterned couch cushion to reveal its unstained bottom. And though the film occasionally falls short of this aesthetic standard, I mostly felt awestruck by the ugliness and loveliness of the production design. Hillcoat (collaborating again with production designer Chris Kennedy) tours us through the fire-ravaged mountains of Oregon, the abandoned, winter-pale streets of Pittsburgh, the flood-damaged sections of New Orleans. There is not a spot of blue or green among the deadfall, the twisted snarls of metal. The arcade of shadows thrown by the world we live in becomes a character in itself, as cadaverous and gray-hued as the man and the boy.

Some have referred to The Road as science fiction. The genre it more closely resembles is the western — in which a hero brings moral order to a lawless territory. In both the novel and the film, the boy is repeatedly referred to as God, or the word of God, and in like manner he serves as the moral compass. “We’re the good guys, right?” is his refrain. It is he who demands they offer a can of pears to a starved old man, who insists they return the clothes to the thief the father has stripped naked and left for dead. He reminds his father how to be good, and in turn the man teaches him to be hopeful, repeatedly assuring him that they will not die, that everything will turn out all right. The love between them — they are “each the other’s world entire” — is the antidote to the debilitating grimness of the narrative. The father tells his son that they are “carrying the fire” — and perhaps it is this, the light they carry with them, that makes the story ultimately redemptive and meaningful to so many: the warmth of its emotional core.

This is of course a trope of the genre, and one of the many reasons we keep revisiting the end of the world on the page and the screen. Even as we despair, even as we lament the selfishness and destructiveness of man, even as we understand the world will keep spinning without us, we stubbornly hope that somewhere in this great swath of ruin, sometime in an unimaginable future, we will do good, we will make things right.

Benjamin Percy is the author of Refresh, Refresh, The Language of Elk, and a forthcoming novel, The Wilding. He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University and is a regular contributor of fiction and nonfiction to Esquire.


  1. I find that whatever people think the future will be is exactly what isn’t. Neither the Jetsons nor The Road. Yes, the book is powerful and what stays with me are the positives: the boy’s concern for who’s good, the father’s concern for survival without reason, the vague and holy ending. I haven’t seen the movie because the book renders it unnecesary — maybe unnecessarily gory. (Even though Mortensen is great.) McCarthy loves the horror of apocalypse overmuch, as maybe we all do now. Actually, that’s not completely right; what he loves, what we love, is catharsis. (But going to a hard rock concert is more cathartic and fun!) Maybe what’s scarier than the Road is what John Berger wrote twenty years ago, that we can’t believe in any imagined future now.

  2. I just finished watching the movie a half hour ago. I thought it was very powerful, and yes I can see how the voice-over and some of the scoring was a bit superfluous. I was struck by it’s similarities to There Will Be Blood, except that that story was about psychosis and power and The Road was about love and belief. In both, a strong man perseveres to achieve what he desires against all odds. In the case of The Road, the Man wants some peace for the boy, for them to share together.

    I don’t think that this is a story about the real end of the world, I believe it is an analogy of the way love grows and sustains us all. How it is painful and joyful at the same minute. It could be seen as an exploration of a possible nihilistic future, but I feel that that is too simplistic. Carrying the fire is what this story is about. Carrying the fire of our luminous self, our soul. Connecting with the heart fire of others. Perhaps that was the meaning of the scene where they looked upon the forest fire in awe. Sparking the smallest fire can create such power.

  3. I don’t know, exactly is that story about the real end of the world or not, but we must think about our mistakes and try to correct all of them. And I’m sure that it’ll help you in future.

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