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Thriller Without the Thrills

Book #22 (August 3, 2010): The Passage by Justin Cronin

Given that I’m several volumes behind in my book-a-week project and finding my life filling up with a surfeit of ways that Amy and I can amuse ourselves with entertainment media that don’t involve reading, it probably wasn’t wise of me to pick a 795-page horror/science fiction/epic quest novel as my next reading project. But it isn’t always obvious how long an e-book is going to be unless you’re paying close attention and it wasn’t until I switched this book over to my Nook that I fully appreciated its length. And, BTW, those aren’t 795 Nook pages. Those are 795 real pages. In Nook pages that’s closer to 2,500, since I had the font size set so that the Nook-page-to-real-page ratio was roughly 3 to 1.

But this book sounded so good in theory that I probably would have read it even if I’d realized I’d wind up spending more than a month plodding through it. It starts with great promise. Indeed, I had hoped that I could begin this review with the line, “Drop every other book in your reading queue and pick this one up immediately, because I’ve found the perfect piece of beach reading for you.” Alas, I can’t.

The Passage (which is currently something like #7 on the New York Times hardback fiction list) starts out great guns, like a collaboration between Stephen King around the time of The Stand and Michael Crichton around the time of The Andromeda Strain. Scientists have discovered a virus deep in the Bolivian jungles that shows potential to make people immortal. It also shows potential to turn them into something like vampires. And these aren’t your romantic, civilized Anne Rice/True Blood vampires. These guys are horrific and prehistoric, about as much like the Vampire Lestat as a sabre-tooth tiger is like a house cat. They are monstrously muscled, fast as lightning, and have stalactite-like teeth that can shred a large animal in seconds. They can also pass on the virus to selected survivors, creating more of their kind.

Of course, the army scientists who discover these things believe they can refine the virus and take out the bad parts, thus obtaining a universal cure for disease, a general preventative for aging, and a way to  breed super soldiers who heal on the battlefield. They start infecting death-row convicts with the bug and locking them away in the bowels of a giant military complex to see what happens. And then — well, you can guess what happens next. The vampire convicts get loose, multiply, and set about destroying the rest of the human race.

This is the gist of about the first third of the book. Up until that point I had hopes that this would be an epic horror novel along the lines of Stephen King’s The Stand, with that same through line of unbearable tension and characters I would learn either to love or to hate. But then Justin Cronin makes an odd decision. It’s not a decision I agree with, but in retrospect I don’t think he could have made any other, because I think what I just described to you wasn’t really the story that he wanted to tell. In fact, he barely describes the part about the escaping vampires and the ensuing slaughter, giving only brief glimpses of it from news stories and handwritten accounts. Instead, he abruptly jumps 93 years into the future, when for all we can tell the only remaining members of the human race, at least in North America, are a tightly knit village of people living inside a crudely fortified town somewhere near Los Angeles. They protect themselves from the vampires — or virals, as they call them — using lights, because this is something that vampires can’t stand and it’s extremely difficult (though not impossible) to kill them with conventional weapons. Unfortunately, the lights are powered by aging storage batteries that are finally starting to go dead, which will leave the town effectively defenseless.

I won’t tell you any more than that, but there’s a lot more novel beyond that point. A LOT more. In fact, for my tastes there was a bit too much more. By this point things were starting to feel a little too much like a standard post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, of which I’ve read many, and there were times when it felt like it was going to drag on forever. There’s a large cast of characters, some of whom I really wanted to like, but I never found myself liking them quite enough to care what happened to them. Let’s just say that what happens to them involves a lengthy trek, from California to Colorado, and Cronin winds up leaving the ending way too ambiguous, which suggests the possibility of a sequel that I have no intention of reading.

None of which is to say that Cronin is a bad writer. He’s actually pretty good, but I would have preferred if he’d held himself to something a little less ambitious — a 400-page epic, say, with slightly fewer characters and slightly fewer irrelevant details. Toward the end he starts getting maudlin and while in some books I’d have found that excusable or even welcome, I never really felt that the story had earned the right to ask the readers to get teary eyed, an effect it never quite managed to have on me (and, believe me, I’ve read books that have made me uncontrollably teary eyed at the end).

So if you’re still looking for summer reading, or just for YAVN (Yet Another Vampire Novel), I’m afraid this one might not be it.

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

2 responses »

  1. Cronin is a respectable stylist, but his storytelling, at least in this offering, didn’t do it for me. Frankly I’m a little surprised by all the kudos for this work.

    Reply
  2. Christopher Lampton

    I get the impression that Cronin’s heart really isn’t in the thriller genre. But according to a couple of 2007 articles in Variety (linked from Cronin’s Wikipedia page) he’s already made $5 million off publication and screen rights for the trilogy, most of which hasn’t even been written yet. Must have a really good agent.

    Reply

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