16 Best Cormac Mccarthy Books of All Time [Ranked for 2024]

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Cormac McCarthy’s books, known for exploring survival, morality, and the human experience, reflect our deepest struggles and victories.

His novels take us on a journey to understand what it means to be human, traveling from desolate, post-apocalyptic roads to the wild American Southwest. They capture life’s darkest and brightest moments.

Get ready to dive into McCarthy’s best works, where every page brings us closer to raw emotions and stunningly stark landscapes. It’s a journey through a world both wildly beautiful and deeply challenging.

Best Cormac Mccarthy Books

• Best Overall: The Road

• Reader’s Choice: No Country for Old Men

• Editor’s Choice: Stella Maris

1. The Road (Oprah’s Book Club)

Genre: Fiction, Sci-fi, Dystopia, Post Apocalyptic, Classics, Horror

In “The Road,” the world is ravaged by an unspecified disaster. Food is scarce, the land is scorched, and danger lurks around every corner in the form of lawless bands of survivors.

Through this desolation, a father and his young son travel south, seeking warmth and safety. Their journey is fraught with challenges, from the scarcity of basic necessities to encounters with other desperate survivors.

But what sets “The Road” apart is not just its depiction of survival. It’s the undying hope and love between the father and son that truly captures your heart.

Despite the horrors they face, their bond remains unbroken, reminding us of the light that can exist in the darkest of places.

You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.

What you might love:

  • The story reaches a broad audience by exploring human relationships and survival.
  • The characters grow and show resilience in a tough environment, which is engaging and inspiring.
  • The themes of hope, despair, love, and survival deeply connect with readers, making them think about what it means to be human.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The novel’s grim post-apocalyptic world might turn off some readers.
  • Its open-ended conclusion could leave readers wanting more closure and dissatisfied.
  • The extensive symbolism and philosophical themes can confuse readers who like simple storytelling.

2. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West

Genre: Fiction, Historical, Westerns, Classics, Literature, Horror

Set in the 1850s, the novel follows a teenage runaway known only as “the kid.” His journey through the American Southwest and Mexico plunges him into the horrific world of the Glanton gang, a group of mercenaries and scalp hunters.

The narrative sweeps across desolate landscapes, depicting violent encounters with indigenous tribes, Mexican soldiers, and other outlaws. The most chilling character of all is Judge Holden, a man whose philosophical musings and merciless actions will haunt you.

This book is not for the faint of heart, if you’re up for a book that discusses violence, power, and the human condition in a thought-provoking, deeply philosophical read, then “Blood Meridian” is the best choice.

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible.

What you might love:

  • The story uses a lot of symbolism and allegory, giving deeper meaning to the plot.
  • The book contains intense, often violent action, mirroring the lawlessness of its setting.
  • The book realistically portrays the harsh life on the frontier, showing history without sugarcoating.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The novel delves into dark themes, with little hope or redemption offered.
  • The novel’s explicit and brutal violence may be too intense for some readers.
  • The book’s deep philosophy and heavy symbolism might confuse or overwhelm some readers.

3. No Country for Old Men

Genre: Fiction, Thriller, Crime, Western, Mystery

The story kicks off with an intense scenario: Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam War veteran, discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Amongst the chaos, he finds a briefcase filled with two million dollars.

His decision to take the money triggers a relentless pursuit by various factions, including the cold and calculating hitman Anton Chigurh, who embodies death and destiny in human form.

As Moss tries to outmaneuver his pursuers, we’re also introduced to Ed Tom Bell, an aging sheriff. Through his eyes, themes of nostalgia, morality, and the inevitability of change are explored.

The “No Country for Old Men” immerses you in a world where every decision carries weight. If you’re looking for a story that combines thrilling action with thought-provoking themes, then this is a book you simply can’t miss.

…you fix what you can fix and you let the rest go. If there ain’t nothin to be done about it it aint even a problem. It’s just a aggravation.

What you might love:

  • The book delves into themes of fate, chance, and the nature of evil in a thought-provoking way.
  • The novel explores complex ethical questions, challenging readers to think about right and wrong.
  • The psychological exploration of the characters, especially in their decisions and actions, is intriguing.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The themes and events of the book can be emotionally taxing.
  • The multiple storylines and complex plot might be confusing or overwhelming for some.
  • The novel contains scenes of graphic violence that may be off-putting for some readers.

4. All the Pretty Horses — The Border Trilogy #1

Genre: Fiction, Historical, Western

John Grady Cole, a young Texas rancher, faces disillusionment in the post-World War II era. Seeking a life that feels authentic and true, he and his friend Lacey Rawlins cross into Mexico, beginning an adventure filled with love, danger, and hard choices.

Their journey becomes even more complicated when John Grady falls in love with Alejandra, a beautiful Mexican rancher’s daughter, leading to consequences both unforeseen and dangerous.

“All the Pretty Horses” explores themes such as love, loss, and the harsh realities of growing up. For those seeking a story with the spirit of adventure and the complexities of the human heart, “All the Pretty Horses” is a ride you don’t want to miss.

Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.

What you might love:

  • The story’s sense of adventure and the pursuit of freedom inspire and captivate.
  • The book explores life on both sides of the border, offering diverse cultural perspectives.
  • The novel is layered with symbolism and deeper meanings, providing room to ponder and discuss.

What might not be for everyone:

  • Sudden, intense violence in the book may disturb some readers.
  • The dialogue is often brief and cryptic, making it hard to grasp the characters’ intentions.
  • The book’s ending is open-ended, possibly disappointing those who like clear conclusions.

5. Cities of the Plain — The Border Trilogy #3

Genre: Fiction, Historical, Western

At this conclusion of the Trilogy, we reunite with John Grady Cole from “All the Pretty Horses” and Billy Parham from “The Crossing.” Their paths cross in 1952 on a New Mexico ranch, setting the stage for a tale of deep passion and looming tragedy.

John Grady’s life takes a dramatic turn when he falls for Magdalena, a young prostitute with a tragic past. This love steers him towards a dangerous confrontation with her ruthless pimp, Eduardo, culminating in a poignant and inevitable climax.

The novel delves deep into themes of fate, redemption, and the cost of true love. It’s a must-read not just for fans of the trilogy but for anyone seeking a story that combines a gripping narrative with deep, universal truths about the human experience.

My daddy once told me that some of the most miserable people he ever knew were the ones that finally got what they’d always wanted.

What you might love:

  • As the last book in the Border Trilogy, it wraps up the overall story satisfyingly.
  • The novel’s central love story is touching and adds a deep human touch to the plot.
  • The book thoughtfully explores life, fate, and destiny, appealing to those who like philosophical depth.

What might not be for everyone:

  • Some readers might find the occasional violent scenes disturbing.
  • The book’s heavy philosophical content may not appeal to those who prefer lighter reading.
  • The focus on character development over action might disappoint those seeking a more thrilling story.

6. The Crossing — The Border Trilogy #2

Genre: Fiction, Historical, Western

The tale unfolds with Billy Parham, a young New Mexico cowboy in the 1940s, who makes a life-altering decision to return a captured she-wolf to her native Mexico. This choice propels him into an epic journey that stretches far beyond geographical borders.

As Billy traverses the rugged landscapes, he encounters various people who share stories and wisdom that challenge his understanding of the world and his place in it.

“The Crossing” stands out for its ability to show the human will to survive and the impact of our choices. For anyone searching for a novel that goes beyond the surface, this book offers insights into the heart of humanity.

The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons. If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all.

What you might love:

  • The novel has a solid emotional core, with moments of heartache and beauty.
  • There are moments of mysticism and surrealism that add depth and intrigue to the story.
  • Themes of loss, discovery, and the passage into adulthood are explored in depth, resonating with many readers.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The story’s tragic and somber tone may not suit those looking for an uplifting read.
  • The lack of frequent action sequences could disappoint those seeking constant excitement.
  • Mystical and unclear parts of the story might confuse readers who like straightforward narratives.

7. Suttree

Genre: Fiction, Southern, Gothic, Classics, American, Southern

“Suttree” follows Cornelius Suttree, who has chosen to live away from his privileged background on a dilapidated houseboat on the Tennessee River in Knoxville. Set in the 1950s, the novel portrays Suttree’s life among the outcasts and misfits of society.

The story presents a detailed chronicle of his life among society’s outcasts—drifters, criminals, and the downtrodden. His existence is marked by episodes of humor, sorrow, and survival, painting a vivid picture of life on the margins.

This novel stands out for its blend of dark humor and tragic beauty. If you’re in for a novel that vividly depicts the human condition, exploring themes of isolation, redemption, and the search for meaning, “Suttree” is an experience you won’t want to miss.

… the world is run by those willing to take the responsibility for the running of it.

What you might love:

  • It balances its dark themes with humor, adding lightness to the story.
  • The novel features many unique and vibrant characters, each enriching the story.
  • The book offers many philosophical insights, prompting readers to think deeply about life.

What might not be for everyone:

  • Its slow pace may not attract fans of fast-paced stories.
  • The novel’s focus on solitude and despair makes it emotionally intense.
  • The lack of a traditional plot structure might confuse or disappoint some readers.

8. Child of God

Genre: Fiction, Horror, Southern, Gothic, American

The story unfolds in 1960s Tennessee, focusing on Lester Ballard, a social outcast with a life marred by violence and loneliness. As Ballard becomes more isolated, his actions grow increasingly disturbing, painting a portrait of a man consumed by his own demons.

The novel presents scenes with brutal honesty, refusing to look away from the darkest aspects of human nature.

“Child of God” is a significant read as it challenges you to look beyond the surface of human behavior to understand the complexity of society, isolation, and madness. It poses questions of morality, societal rejection, and man’s capacity for evil and sympathy.

If you’re drawn to stories that challenge perceptions and probe into the darker side of humanity, “Child of God” is a powerful, eye-opening novel that you won’t be able to forget.

You are either going to have to find some other way to live or some other place in the world to do it in.

What you might love:

  • The story’s dark tone compellingly portrays society’s outskirts.
  • The characters’ and situations’ moral ambiguity challenges readers to think in shades of gray.
  • The novel’s distinct style, with minimal dialogue and detailed prose, is notable in contemporary literature.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The novel’s dark humor might not appeal to everyone.
  • The unconventional plot structure may confuse or disappoint some readers.
  • Its ambiguous morals can unsettle readers who prefer clear moral messages.

9. Stella Maris — The Passenger #2

Genre: Fiction, Historical, Philosophy

Alicia Western is a 20-year-old mathematics genius battling with mental illness. The narrative unfolds through dialogues between Alicia and her psychiatrist, where each conversation peels back layers of her brilliant but troubled mind.

As you turn the pages, you witness the struggle of a mind caught between the realms of genius and insanity, exploring themes of love, loss, and the relentless quest for truth.

You’ll witness Alicia’s personal struggles with broader philosophical and mathematical theories challenging your intellect while touching your heart. If you’re intrigued by the interplay of mind, reality, and the nature of truth, “Stella Maris” is the book for you.

"If you had to say something definitive about the world in a single sentence what would that sentence be?"
"It would be this: the world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy."

What you might love:

  • It’s set in a psychiatric facility, creating a unique and compelling story background.
  • McCarthy’s mastery of dialogue and narrative structure highlights his artistry in prose.
  • The novel explores topics like topology, physics, ethics, and philosophy, intellectually engaging readers.

What might not be for everyone:

  • Appreciating the book might require specialized knowledge of its complex topics.
  • The book’s intense focus on mental illness and deep themes could be overwhelming for some.
  • Concentrating on one character’s view might disappoint readers who like multiple perspectives.

10. The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts

Genre: Plays, Drama, Fiction, American Theatre, 20th Century

The story revolves around Ben Telfair, focusing on his efforts to uphold the values of his trade and the weight of familial responsibility. The dynamics within the Telfair family bring to life their struggles, hopes, and the unspoken bonds that tie them together.

As you follow their journey, you’ll witness the challenges they face, from societal pressures to personal disappointments, all while maintaining a deep connection to their roots and traditions.

“The Stonemason” is a must-read because it tells a story and compels you to reflect on the values of hard work, dedication, and the importance of preserving cultural and personal legacies.

The wisdom of the journeyman is to work one day at a time and he always said that any job even if it took years was made up out of a day’s work. 

What you might love:

  • The emotional journey of the characters is both moving and compelling, engaging the audience’s empathy.
  • The craft of stonemasonry is used symbolically, representing larger themes of skill, dedication, and legacy.
  • The setting and scenarios are portrayed realistically, grounding the play’s more profound themes in tangible experiences.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The play’s emotional intensity could overwhelm or drain some viewers.
  • Focus on specific cultural and family dynamics might not resonate with everyone.
  • The complexity of the characters and their relationships can be challenging to follow.

11. Outer Dark

Genre: Fiction, Horror, Southern, Gothic

The story begins with a harrowing event: Rinthy gives birth to her brother Culla’s child. Culla, in a desperate act, abandons the baby in the woods, telling Rinthy it died. But Rinthy, refusing to accept this, sets out to find her child.

Meanwhile, Culla embarks on his own aimless journey, pursued by unnamed, sinister figures. Their separate paths through a bleak and unforgiving landscape are narrated with McCarthy’s signature stark and powerful prose.

“Outer Dark” explores themes like fate, guilt, and the human capacity for kindness and cruelty. It stands out for its haunting atmosphere, unforgettable characters, and its exploration of the darker aspects of human nature.

Hard people make hard times. I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why god ain’t put out the sun and gone away.

What you might love:

  • The novel is rich with symbolism, offering layers of meaning for readers to explore.
  • The narrative’s unconventional structure adds to the novel’s uniqueness and intrigue.
  • The story has a gothic feel, with its dark themes and settings appealing to fans of this genre.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The book’s bleakness may turn off those looking for light reading.
  • Its non-linear timeline can be confusing for fans of traditional storytelling.
  • Mystic and allegorical elements could baffle readers wanting straightforward tales.

12. The Sunset Limited

Genre: Fiction, Plays, Drama, Philosophy, American, Religion, Theatre

The story unfolds as Black, an ex-convict and devout Christian, saves White, a disillusioned academic, from committing suicide. They retreat to Black’s apartment, where a profound and gripping dialogue ensues.

Their conversation delves deep into themes of faith, suffering, and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. The book brilliantly contrasts Black’s hopeful perseverance against White’s cynical despair, giving a vivid picture of the human condition.

What makes this book extraordinary is its deep dive into themes of faith, despair, and the human condition, all through a single conversation.

You’ll find yourself drawn into their discussion, questioning along with the characters the very essence of existence, belief, and hope.

I got what I needed instead of what I wanted and that’s just about the best kind of luck you can have.

What you might love:

  • The strong emotions in the characters’ conversations have a deep impact on readers.
  • The play’s simple setting lets readers focus on and get close to the dialogue and characters.
  • The two main characters are clear and compelling, drawing in readers who want robust personalities.

What might not be for everyone:

  • Somber themes may not suit those wanting uplifting stories.
  • Topics like suicide and existentialism might prove too heavy for fans of light reading.
  • The book’s two-character dialogue may not attract those who enjoy a broader cast and varied interactions.

13. The Passenger — The Passenger #1

Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery

“The Passenger” unfolds around Bobby, a salvage diver haunted by his past—a past filled with shadows, including the loss of his sister and the burden of his father’s legacy. And the strange turn his life takes following a mysterious plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico.

His journey turns unexpectedly when he discovers a plane wreck with an inexplicable list of passengers and a missing black box. This discovery thrusts him into a labyrinth of mysteries and existential dilemmas.

This novel stands apart in its ability to make us reflect on our own lives, our own losses, and our own search for meaning. “The Passenger” is a mirror into our souls.

People will go to strange lengths to avoid the suffering they have coming.

What you might love:

  • The characters’ emotional search for meaning deeply connects with readers.
  • The dialogue reveals deep character insights and propels the plot, engaging readers.
  • The book delves into profound philosophical questions, engaging readers in deep thought.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The book’s dark tone may not suit those who prefer lighter reads.
  • Its mystical elements might not appeal to fans of realistic storytelling.
  • Ambiguous plot points could disappoint readers who prefer clear endings.

14. The Orchard Keeper

Genre: Fiction, Southern Gothic, Historical, American

Set in a rural Tennessee town, “The Orchard Keeper” introduces you to the lives of three main characters: a young boy named John Wesley Rattner, an old man named Arthur Ownby, and Marion Sylder, an outlaw with a heart.

As you delve into the lives of these characters, you uncover a web of connections that binds them. John Wesley seeks to understand the mystery behind his father’s death, a journey that connects his fate with Sylder and Ownby.

“The Orchard Keeper” explores themes of solitude, the relationship between man and nature, and the inevitable clash between old and new ways of life. It’s a journey where every character and setting is imbued with a sense of place and purpose.

And he no longer cared to tell which were things done and which dreamt.

What you might love:

  • The story’s mystery elements add intrigue and suspense.
  • Its vivid descriptions create a movie-like visualization for readers.
  • The novel delves into themes like isolation and time, connecting with readers.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The complex narrative structure might challenge some readers.
  • Its dark themes may not appeal to those seeking lighter reads.
  • Ambiguous plot points could frustrate readers who like clear endings.

15. The Gardener’s Son

Genre: Fiction, Plays, Drama, American, Southern Gothic, 20th Century

Set in a gritty, post-Civil War industrial town, this narrative centers around the contrasting lives of two families: the wealthy Greggs, who own the local mill, and the McEvoys, whose life is steeped in personal tragedy.

The heart of the story beats around Robert McEvoy, the gardener’s son, who returns home after a two-year absence to find his world irrevocably changed.

The story delves into themes of class conflict, family dynamics, and the stark realities of industrialization. It’s a work that stands apart for its exploration of historical themes and vivid portrayal of human relationships in the face of societal change.

What you might love:

  • The book insightfully comments on social and class dynamics, enriching the story.
  • It delves into complex moral and ethical issues, engaging readers’ sense of justice.
  • The dialogue, reflecting its screenplay roots, is crisp and accurate and propels the plot effectively.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The historical setting might not attract fans of modern or timeless stories.
  • Its dialogue-heavy style may disappoint those who like detailed narrative exposition.
  • Its emphasis on social and class issues might not appeal to readers seeking escapism or lighter themes.

16. The Counselor

Genre: Fiction, Plays, Drama, American, Film, Crime, Thriller

In this gripping narrative, you’ll meet the Counselor, a lawyer who steps into the treacherous terrain of drug trafficking to make quick money.

The plan seems foolproof, but as he delves deeper, the stakes skyrocket, and the lines between right and wrong blur.

This journey is not just about a drug deal; it’s a descent into a moral abyss where every choice comes with a heavy price.

“The Counselor” is an immersive reading experience. It challenges you to ponder the consequences of our choices and the unstoppable nature of fate. It’s a journey into a world where every action has a cost, and the price is often steep.

And you will never know the depth of your heart until you are presented with the opportunity for revenge. Only then will you know what you are capable of.

What you might love:

  • The novel explores moral ambiguity, challenging readers to think about right and wrong.
  • The book’s screenplay origin gives it a cinematic feel, making scenes vivid and visually engaging.
  • The story moves at a tight pace, maintaining suspense and intrigue throughout.

What might not be for everyone:

  • The screenplay-like structure of the novel might confuse some readers.
  • The story’s moral ambiguity could unsettle readers who prefer clear moral direction.
  • The characters’ philosophical exchanges amidst a gritty drug trafficking plot might seem heavy or out of place for fans of straightforward crime fiction.

Final Thoughts

Venturing into the pages of a Cormac McCarthy book is akin to setting off on an epic trail—the kind where the path is rugged, the scenery is breathtaking, and you’re likely to encounter a bear or two.

In McCarthy’s world, characters grapple with life’s big questions while navigating beautiful landscapes. So, if you’re ready to saddle up for a literary ride through the wild, untamed territories of human nature, grab one of his books.

Just remember: in the world of McCarthy, expect the unexpected—and maybe keep the lights on.

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Erika Maniquiz is a certified teacher and librarian with a Library and Information Science degree. She cherishes the calm moments reading books as much as the dynamic discussions she has in her classroom. Beyond her career, she is a fan of Kdrama and loves Kpop's lively beats.