Dead Man Walking

The core of literature is the idea of tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.

So exactly what makes up the heart and soul of a good novel?

I once wrote, with a certain amount of confidence, that all memorable novels were about two things:


And death.

I believed it.

I really did.

Then Cormac McCarthy set me straight.

This, he said, was what all great novels were about:


And Death.

He changed my mind completely.

Now he’s done it again.

Cormac McCarthy

I ran across a Cormac McCarthy quote that said:

The core of literature is the idea of tragedy.

You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.

So that’s what it’s about.

Good stories are about tragedy.

Even comedy is wrapped up and packaged in tragedy. You can’t make people laugh until they realize how miserable they have been.

His words started me thinking about some of the fine novels I’ve read.

And sure enough, all of them are connected to tragedy.

Gone With the Wind witnesses the destruction of Atlanta during war and the tragic demise of a love affair between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on a woman who was raped, which everyone can agree is a real tragedy, and an innocent man going on trial and being convicted of the rape, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

On the Beach deals with the end of the world, a time when all life slowly ceases to exist because of fallout from a nuclear war.

McCarthy’s The Road tries and fails to bring some sense and order to a dystopian world where those who remain after nuclear war are fighting the odds and each other in a desperate attempt to survive their fate.

Nights in Rodanthe spin out of control on the death of a woman’s last hope and maybe last chance for love.

Tears are shed in The Notebook.

Pick up the Kleenex when you pick up the book.

Even the Nursery Rhymes of my youth are fraught with tragedy.

Humpty Dumpty was broken into pieces, and none of the King’s men were able to put him back together again.

Cinderella’s glorious coach that carried her to the ball became a pumpkin and, what’s more, she lost her glass slippers.

Sleeping Beauty ate the poisoned apple.

And Little Red Riding Hood was stalked, cornered, and probably ravaged by the wolf. My mother never said.

Thrillers are hinged on tragedy.

So are such genres as mystery and fantasy and science fiction.

Romances revolve around the tragedies of love found and love lost and love stolen. Hearts break. Lives are crushed. Futures look dark.

In my latest release, Place of Skulls, Ambrose Lincoln is stalked by a dead man.

Who is he?

Lincoln knows.

Why is he there?

Lincoln knows he’s the man who killed the stalker.

But why doesn’t the dead man die?

Why doesn’t he leave?

He’s Lincoln’s constant companion.

As I wrote: Ambrose Lincoln watched the ragged edges of night paint the streets below and waited for the dead man to step from the shadows. They were never together, he and the dead man.

They were seldom apart.

They had never spoken.

Their eyes had not yet met.

Death was the only thing they had in common.

Often Lincoln had wondered which of them had really survived and which was destined to roam the earth in search of an empty grave.

The air around him was always thick with the acrid smell of gun smoke when the dead man was near. It burned his throat. His chest hurt. He screamed the first time he saw the man whose chest had been torn away with a hollow point slug from a 9mm handgun, his 9mm handgun. The screaming was no longer necessary.

The past held its secrets in a tightly closed fist, and only on rare occasions did the fingers of another time, another place, loosen their grasp long enough to provide faint glimpses of what was, what might have been, and what did or did not happen on the landscape of a man’s faith or his memory.


And death.

What kept them together?

What kept them apart.

As Cormac McCarthy said, “There are no absolutes in human misery, and things can always get worse.”

In the novels we remember most, they always do.


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