Blood Meridian—Cormac McCarthy’s fifth, and arguably greatest, novel, about a band of scalp hunters along the Texas–Mexico border—contains, without a doubt, some of the most gruesome, troubling scenes in all American literature. Dead babies hang from tree limbs. A man wears a necklace made of human ears. A teenager is grotesquely murdered in an outhouse. But I’d make the case that, though Blood Meridian is no light read, McCarthy’s third novel, Child of God, from his early Appalachian period, is the Pulitzer Prize winner’s scariest work—at least in terms of classic gothic horror. It’ll make you feel uneasy about walking through the woods at night, that’s for sure.
The book, set in postwar Appalachian Tennessee, follows depraved miscreant Lester Ballard as he haunts the hills of Sevier County and descends from being an unhinged squatter to a serial killer and necrophile. About midway through the novel, on a remote mountain turnaround, Ballard finds a couple dead in a car, presumably from carbon-monoxide poisoning. He then drags the girl’s body to his cabin, where he gets, well, intimate with the corpse. It’s well known that McCarthy drew from historical sources when writing Blood Meridian. But less discussed is the fact that McCarthy also cribbed details from a notorious real-life murder in writing Child of God. And the real story that likely inspired the novel is just as horrifying as McCarthy’s fictionalized account.
In her book Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee Period, scholar Dianne C. Luce points out that McCarthy seems to have been influenced heavily by the 1963 so-called Lula Lake Murders on Lookout Mountain, outside Chattanooga, Tenn. The story goes that on Sunday, April 14, 1963, after finishing an Easter lunch with his family, 27-year-old James Blevins donned a camouflage suit and drove to Lookout Mountain to go “riding around” and spy on couples parked on the back roads having sex. He would later say that he had done this sort of thing since he was 15, and was embarrassed by the habit. According to the Rome News-Tribune, once on the mountain that afternoon, Blevins parked his car and walked through the woods to Lula Lake, a modest-sized pool, fed by a mountain stream. There, Blevins came upon 16-year-old Carolyn Newell and her fiancé, 19-year-old Pete Steele, a popular Chattanooga Valley couple, sitting on the fender of Steele’s car. Blevins approached the young couple and talked with them, during which time, he later said, he got the impression that another couple was with them and somewhere nearby. Sometime after the initial encounter, Blevins returned to the car—presumably when Newell and Steele weren’t around—and let the air out of a tire, because “he thought if he stranded the car he could be able to ‘pick up’ the girls and ‘take them home,’” the News-Tribune reported.
No one knows for sure what happened next, but Newell and Steele didn’t make it home that evening.
The discovery of Steele’s abandoned car at Lula Lake the day after Easter set off a massive search for the couple, which concluded six days later, with a grisly discovery. “Steele’s body was laced to a tree with binder’s twine and evidence indicated that he had been strangled, using the same twine and a short stick to tighten it around his neck,” the News-Tribune reported on May 8th, 1963. “Miss Newell’s body lay 100 to 150 feet away, her wrists held together by twine. Testimony at a coroner’s inquest indicated that she had been repeatedly raped, struck over the head, and then choked to death. Witnesses said she probably died several hours after Steele.” Newell’s clothing had been “shredded,” and she was naked from the waist down. Animals had eaten part of her leg.
In the days before the couple was found, Blevins had seemed unfazed, according to his ex-wife. But once Blevins read stories of the missing couple in the papers, he asked her to go with him to look for the couple. But she was scared and refused. He remarked that searchers were “wasting their time” dragging Lula Lake for the bodies and added, “They’re on the side of the mountain; they might still be alive.”
Other people had seen Blevins near Lula Lake that day, and after the discovery of the bodies, Blevins was picked up for questioning. He admitted to authorities that he had talked with the couple that day, but maintained that he knew nothing about the murders. He told reporters that he had returned home that evening and didn’t hear of the couple’s disappearance until the following Friday. Law enforcement was not convinced, and Blevins was held without bond. Blevins’s lawyer later conceded that his client was a “weakling,” a “sex degenerate”, and a “peeping Tom,” but not a murderer. After subjecting Blevins to a lie-detector test, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent said that the suspect had “guilty knowledge” of the couple’s murder, while another agent who conducted a second test said Blevins was “too emotionally disturbed” for accurate results.
The murders rocked Chattanooga, and the story went national; even the New York Times picked it up. Scholar Dianne C. Luce notes that at the time, Cormac McCarthy was living in Knoxville, just a couple hours up the highway from Chattanooga, where the local papers also covered the Lula Lake murders. Given how big the story was in East Tennessee and its parallels with Child of God, it seems likely that McCarthy was familiar with the case and drew on it for inspiration.
As for Blevins, he was found guilty of murder in May, 1964. But the decision was later overturned, and he eventually walked free. As a freeman, Blevins said that he intended “to go out in the world and make a good citizen.” He planned to rebuild his life, he said, though “it’s hard to do after all I’ve lost through this—work and healthy. But I believe I’m man enough to do it.”