How we cite our quotes:
They followed the stone wall past the remains of an orchard. The trees in their ordered rows gnarled and black and the fallen limbs thick on the ground. He stopped and looked across the fields. Wind in the east. The soft ash moving in the furrows. Stopping. Moving again. He'd seen it all before. Shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass and gray coils of viscera where the slain had been field-dressed and hauled away. The wall beyond held a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes. They wore gold rings in their leather ears and in the wind their sparse and ratty hair twisted about on their skulls. The teeth in their sockets like dental molds, the crude tattoos etched in some homebrewed woad faded in the beggared sunlight. [. . .] The heads not truncheoned shapeless had been flayed of their skins and the raw skulls painted and signed across the forehead in a scrawl and one white bone skull had the plate sutures etched carefully in ink like a blueprint for assembly. (140.1)
Some literary critics have compared Cormac McCarthy, specifically in his grosser moments like this one, to the eminent Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness. It's easy to see why. We don't think it takes too much straining to hear in this passage something similar to Joseph Conrad's description of Kurtz's camp deep in the Congo. (If you haven't read Heart of Darkness, Conrad also describes a collection of human skulls on spikes.) Both authors have a chilling precision when it comes to gore and violence.
He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous. (168.1)
This is one of the more infamous passages in the book. The Man and The Boy explore a house in the hope of finding some food. Instead, they find a cellar full of people who are presumably being kept like livestock for slaughter. What's so revolting about this scene is that the "bad guys" are not just cannibals, pushed beyond the imaginable limits of hunger. They're actually keeping and raising human beings like you would chickens or cows. Let's just hope there's never "a long shear of light and then a low series of concussions" like the disaster from The Road, because this stuff is scary.
They walked into the little clearing, the boy clutching his hand. They'd taken everything with them except whatever black thing was skewered over the coals. He was standing there checking the perimeter when the boy turned and buried his face against him. He looked quickly to see what had happened. What is it? he said. What is it? The boy shook his head. Oh Papa, he said. He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit. He bent and picked the boy up and started for the road with him, holding him close. I'm sorry, he whispered. I'm sorry. (276.1)
OK, so this is the other infamous passage in The Road. The Man and The Boy happen upon a campfire with a spit. On the spit there's the charred body of an infant. This is probably the most horrifying image in the book, but it's worth shifting our gaze to The Man's response. He picks up The Boy (because he wants to keep him safe?) and carries him to the road. Then he apologizes to The Boy. And isn't this how parents respond when the less attractive parts of life encroach upon their children? They apologize both for how terrible the world can be and that they let down their guard, somehow allowing the kid to see the world at its worst.