"A Self-Observing World of Observers": The American Serial Killer in Cormac McCarthy's Child of God and Contemporary True Crime Narratives

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Engdahl, Molly Hammond
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Particularly unique in true and fictionalized crime narratives is the serial killer; a criminal overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, and understood by cultural scholars like Mark Seltzer and David Schmid as distinctly American. This thesis offers a concerted look at one such figure: Lester Ballard, the problematic “protagonist” of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. My study is organized into four sections which take up the language of criminal classification in order to more fully determine how Lester functions. “Who Is(n’t) Lester Ballard?” troubles the existing scholarship which sees fictional Lester as a descendant of real-life murderer Ed Gein. “What is Lester Ballard?: Federal Definitions of Serial Killers,” argues that McCarthy actively subverts the narrative of the knowable, captured killer that the FBI and the public seek from stories of repetitive, violent crime. “Why Is Lester Ballard?: Inquiries into Motive” suggests that McCarthy purposefully denies psychological motivation and instead focuses on Lester’s corporeality as a means of complicating his mythicization by the residents of Sevierville. Finally, “Where is Lester Ballard?: The Liminal Space of Crime Fact and Fiction” posits that McCarthy ultimately creates a microcosm of true crime writing in Lester’s fictional community.|That McCarthy’s novel mimics the real world communities of true crime creators and consumers connects a traditional literary study to the cultural/rhetorical study of true crime podcasting I offer in part two. In crime narratives of either kind, there is a constant implication of the other – true crime is narrativized along the lines of crime fiction, and crime fiction constantly strives to be so potent as to be mistaken for crime fact. For this reason, I take up one specific branch of the current explosion of true crime treatments, the true crime comedy podcast My Favorite Murder, as a complex and unique iteration of the genre and the figure of the investigator which begins with Nancy Drew and develops through televisual girl detectives like the Pretty Little Liars and Veronica Mars.
Creighton University
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