Black and bleak
Blake (born 1947) had already published two ‘Western’ novels, The Pistoleer (1995), which
tells of John Wesley Hardin, and Thye Friends of Pancho Villa (1996), which concentrates on the life of Villa’s private executioner Rodolfo Fierro. In the Rogue Blood came out in 1997.
The brothers combine in the killing of their abusive father and are ever after haunted by it. They leave Florida to make their own way in Texas and of course many adventures happen along the way, allowing Blake to give us a picture of the 1840s south. They fetch up in New Orleans but are dramatically separated there. They will only be reunited at the very end of the book, and much of the narrative deals alternately with the separate progress of John and Edward, or Ward as he is known.
Both brothers harbor lustful thoughts for their sister, and Blake seems to have a morbid fascination with incest (see his 2000 novel about Bloody Bill Anderson, Wildwood Boys). The grisly fate of this girl, sold into prostitution, is one of the bleaker aspects of an already bleak book. In some ways we might be reminded of The Searchers, with the brothers hunting their abducted sister, but In the Rogue Blood is very far indeed from Alan Le May or John Ford. To film it would need Peckinpah and Brian de Plasma at the very least. And even they would run out of gore.
For the bleakness is mixed with savagery, not only in the Mexican war. Casual lynchings, murders and rapes pepper the narrative. A Kirkus review cataloged the violence this way: “People are shot, clubbed, knifed, eviscerated, castrated, decapitated, impaled, flayed alive, hanged, scalped, dismembered, blown up, and immolated.” The gruesome violence, the seemingly predestined disaster and the noir tone combine to make the novel very far from light reading.
But Blake writes very well. His tone is literary and he attempts a vaguely Victorian prose style but without losing ‘Western’ power. Though Blake certainly has his own ‘voice’, we are reminded slightly of Larry McMurtry, or even, at times, almost of Cormac McCarthy.
Speaking of Cormac McCarthy, a key part of the story comes when Ward joins a band of scalphunters who murder Apaches, including women and children, for the bounty that the Mexican government offered on their scalps. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian came out in 1985 and you feel that Blake must have been influenced by it. Blake even has an ‘intellectual’ semi-priest in the loathsome band of scalpers who philosophizes to the others.
The Austin Chronicle reviewer Jesse Sublett quotes Blake on his background and it’s perhaps worth inserting here: