Too Many Vampires

The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010): The Passage caused a bidding war among publishers that topped out at $3.75 million for the publishing rights and an unknown (and probably greater) amount for Ridley Scott’s purchase of the film rights. Pretty good for a third novel from a writer whose first two novels were acclaimed and awarded for their literary merit but, insofar as I know, lacked vampire apocalypses.

There are a lot of good things in The Passage, especially in the first 500 pages or so (it checks in at about 760 pages in trade paperback, with two more volumes of the trilogy on the way). Cronin has a flair for description and characterization that elevates this above the run-of-the-mill thriller, with passages of occasional lyric beauty and some keenly drawn sympathetic characters. The plot is suspenseful, the apocalypse nicely imagined. He’s not so good at imagining the inside of unsympathetic characters, but that seems to be part of the ethos of the novel — there’s really only one truly despicable person in The Passage, and he isn’t a vampire. Everyone else has his or her reasons.

We begin in 2016. A U.S. military-funded expedition to South America yields what appears to be the source of all vampire legends: a bat-carried virus that turns people into, well, vampires. They’re super-strong, nearly invulnerable, extremely photo-sensitive, tear people to pieces and eat them an awful lot, and can transmit their affliction to others. They also lose all body hair and run around naked — essentially, they’re a cross between the vampire in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Will Ferrell’s character in Old School.

The military sees this a golden opportunity to “weaponize the human body”, and begins experimenting with the virus in a secret Colorado laboratory. Things go well. And then they don’t. They really, really don’t. Boy, do they not go well at all.

We leave the major characters of the 2016-2018 portion of the novel behind at about the 250-page mark with the complete collapse of civilization well underway. A couple of vignettes take us through the next 93 years until we arrive at a small California mountain-top settlement that’s survived the ongoing apocalypse, and we are introduced to our next cast of characters. Here, the novel shifts into a post-apocalyptic mode that recalls novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz, only with vampires and a lot of late teen-aged angst. Lots of stuff happens. And 500 pages later, we end on a cliffhanger.

There’s a major logical flaw very early in the novel that may derail some of your appreciation for the work if you figure it out. I’m not telling you. Like Ontario, it’s yours to discover. The first 500 pages really do zip by, with solid world- and character-building yoked to a rollercoaster of a plot. And what a rollercoaster!

No, seriously, what a rollercoaster! After 500 pages of reversals, apparent deaths, shocking developments, shocking returns from the dead, more shocking deaths, and a casino that explodes because of a 93-year-long build-up of sewer gases, I started to feel less like I was on a rollercoaster and more like I was being punched in the head repeatedly.

Cronin never runs out of ideas (though they’re often other people’s ideas synthesized into new combinations), but after awhile you may wish he would. Or save some for the sequel. As The Passage has often been compared to the first volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I’ll illustrate the problem with the climax using The Fellowship of the Ring: imagine if Gandalf and company fought a Balrog, then fought two Balrogs, then fought an army of Balrogs, and then found out that there were 500 more Balrogs between them and Mordor. Somewhere in the middle of all that, both Boromir and Gandalf die and then come back to life, only to die again. Or maybe not. Now imagine that scenario on speed. That’s what the novel accelerates into, out of the blue and into the black.

By the end, there’s too much of everything. So too much of everything. Two loveable animals killed for no discernible plot reason except to jerk some tears; two ‘good’ characters with what amount to superpowers; two Magical Negros (seriously — it’s as if Stephen King decided to have both Mother Abigail and John Coffey dispensing magical blackness in The Stand); two action set-pieces involving a train pursued by a horde of vampires; 12 vampire lords (actually, 13. Or maybe 14. Maybe it’s an homage to the replicant-number problem in the original version of Blade Runner); so many teary farewells and subsequent teary hellos that I lost track; bioluminiscent vampires (which are I assume a satiric commentary on the sparkly vampires of Twilight); multiple nicknames for vampires, none of them being the obvious ‘vampire’ or ‘vamps’ (instead we get ‘smokes’ or ‘jumps’ or ‘flyers’); one super-magical little girl; two dead characters who return from the dead and really, really shouldn’t have; one fairly major character we know is doomed because he alone never gets an internal monologue; a seemingly haunted house; and repeated references to an academic conference more than a millennium after the outbreak of the vampire plague that recall Margaret Atwood’s frame narrative for A Handmaid’s Tale but which don’t help at all with generating suspense.

This last one is quite interesting, as it’s similar to what Max Brooks did in World War Z — that is, contain the apocalypse within a shell narrative demonstrating that the end of the world did not, in fact, entirely arrive. It defangs the menace of the apocalypse (and the vampires), and I can’t say as I think it’s a good idea. Essentially, it puts a guardrail up for the weak of heart. Someone will survive! But one of the points of an apocalyptic narrative in the contemporary world is that someone may NOT survive, and you’re supposed to read to the end to find out.

The dual trains-outracing-vampires sequences illustrate one of the problems with Narrative Overkill. The first sequence is startling, in part because the character describing the events can’t actually see what’s happening — she can hear what’s happening, she can respond to the reactions of the people around her who actually know what’s happening, and she can describe what she learned later about what she was hearing. It’s quite unnerving and evocative, and leaves a lot to the imagination, which is where a lot of great horror ultimately resides.

The second train sequence plays like a storyboard for a Mummy movie, with rivers of fast-moving vampires pursuing a train in what really reads like a description of a CGI scene from a big-budget film. It isn’t evocative at all, or particularly scary, and the conclusion of this sequence also operates as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card that immediately solves what might have actually been something of a messy plot problem. It’s dull, it’s manipulative, and it’s completely inorganic. Remember when Spielberg couldn’t restrain himself and had to give us a second ‘bike flying through the air’ sequence in E.T., only with more kids and far less impact? That’s Cronin’s problem here. He’s too schematic in his attempts to top himself.

Overall, though, I enjoyed The Passage more than I was annoyed by it. The first 500 pages really are solid and sometimes spectacular; the last 260 pages are increasingly wearying and manipulative. I will be interested to read the middle book of the trilogy. Right now, Cronin could go either way as a thriller writer, and I’m interested to see which way that will be. Recommended.

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