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Category Archives: horror fiction

The Old New Weird: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation cover

The cover should really be weirder than this.

Weird fiction was a genre of fiction even before there was such a thing as genre, which is really more a publishing term that tells bookstores what shelves they should put books on and gives self-published e-book authors some area of fiction that their books can excel in on’s many bestseller lists. The term “weird fiction” was coined by 19th century Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who specialized in what we would now call mystery and horror fiction, but which were then just part of the general mainstream of literature. Weird fiction encompasses ghost stories, horror stories and just about any stories in which something unusual and distinctly creepy is going on, whether or not it has a supernatural element to it. It lent its name to one of the greatest of all early 20th century pulp magazines, Weird Tales, probably best known today for having published most of the major work of that towering master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, with whose death in 1937 the popularity of weird fiction died too, leaving it as a niche genre that only a few writers, like Robert Bloch (better known for writing the novel Psycho than for his weird fiction) and Ramsey Campbell, continued to work in. In recent years, though, the genre has undergone something of a revival, much of it in a form called the New Weird, which nobody is able to define but everybody seems to agree is what’s being written by authors like China Miéville.

Jeff VanderMeer is an expert on weird fiction, having not only edited (along with his wife Ann VanderMeer) several collections of old weird and new weird fiction, but having written quite a bit of it himself, including the short story collection City of Saints and Madmen and the novel Finch. I grew up on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and read quite a bit of the old weird fiction in my teens but have really only become aware of the renaissance in weird fiction recently, mostly from reading the introductions to Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthologies (which you should read — the introductions, I mean — if you want to know more about weird fiction than I’m telling you here, though this Wikipedia article is also helpful). I had been meaning for some time to explore the newer contributions to the field and when I noticed that Jeff VanderMeer had begun a new trilogy of weird fiction novels collectively called The Southern Reach, it seemed like an ideal place to start. I’ve now read the first novel in the series, Annihilation  — the second novel, Authority, will be published this May and the third novel, Acceptance, will be published in September — and can report that, while I’m not sure whether it belongs to the old weird fiction or to the new weird, it is unquestionably, undeniably weird.

Based on my own acquaintance with the field, I can tell you that weird fiction doesn’t emphasize a lot of the things that traditional fiction does, like character and plot, and only emphasizes setting to the extent that a story’s setting can contribute to its overall weirdness. H.P. Lovecraft occasionally introduced memorable characters into his stories, but by far his most memorable tended to be the frequently unnamed first-person narrators of his stories and their voices always seemed to be the voice of Lovecraft himself, though without the sense of humor he frequently displayed in his letters to friends. What is paramount to weird fiction is mood and the most common mood in weird fiction is dread, which can be either mild or so extreme that it causes the characters to become insane. Lovecraft was fond of saying that his narrators escaped insanity only through a form of denial, “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” as he puts it in his most famous (though far from best) story “The Call of Cthulhu.” (Sometimes they also resorted to morphine, which I gather was easier to obtain in Lovecraft’s day.)

In Annihilation, Vandermeer makes his priorities clear. He doesn’t even bother to give his characters names, referring to them only by the roles they play in the expedition that makes up the novel’s plot: the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor. The narrator herself — all of these characters are female — is simply “the biologist.” The goal of their vaguely defined expedition is to explore a mysterious region known as “Area X” and it’s never clear where this region is, not just where it is on our planet, but whether it’s actually on our planet or even has a physical existence at all. It could well exist in the characters’ minds, given that nobody (with the possible exception of the psychologist, who seems to be running the expedition for the explorers’ “superiors,” a government agency known only as the Southern Reach) even seems to know how they arrived there. They crossed something called “the border” while in a state of hypnosis induced by the psychologist, who apparently also induced in their minds certain keywords that would cause them to respond in pre-programmed ways, including keywords that would cause them to commit suicide if necessary. We gradually learn that this isn’t the first expedition into Area X and that nobody seems to be sure how many previous expeditions there have been or whether the explorers returned from them. (Some of the explorers, like the narrator’s husband, did return, but with such altered personalities that the narrator is convinced that at some point in the expedition he was replaced by someone, or something, else. The narrator believes, based on notes she finds that her husband left behind in a mysterious location called “the lighthouse,” that he actually headed off even more deeply into Area X in search of a boat that he could use for further exploration.)

Much of the story concerns the discovery of a large hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into it, a frequent trope in Lovecraft’s work. Everybody calls this “the tunnel,” except for the narrator, who calls it “the tower,” insisting on seeing it as rising even though it’s distinctly descending. As the explorers climb down the staircase, they find phosphorescent writing on the wall relating (in English) a semicoherent narrative apparently being written by some creature that has worked its way down to an even lower level of the “tower.” Before they descend more than a short distance, the explorers decide to branch out in small parties from their base camp (which is simply the point at which they found themselves when they awoke from their hypnotic transition to Area X) and explore nearby points of interest, but gradually…well, I won’t give away any more of the plot, though VanderMeer is so obviously reluctant to make any coherent sense of this story that I’m almost hesitant to use the word “plot” to describe it.

As an introduction to weird fiction, I can’t think of a better place to start than this novel. It’s short — 56,000 words, which is barely more than half the length of one of the Hunger Games novels — adeptly written and distinctly evocative of, well, weirdness. If you prefer your fiction a bit more conventional, though, you’d be better advised to avoid it, because conventional is one thing VanderMeer is very intent on not being.


Back From Hell and Seriously Pissed: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Book #14 for 2012: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

There’s a certain kind of hardboiled crime story that practitioners of the genre, both writers and filmmakers, turn to when they want to tell a story that’s particularly violent and has a strongly motivated protagonist. It’s the one where the main character — you wouldn’t exactly call him the hero — is a guy who hung around with a rough gang of criminals when he was younger and was betrayed by them when they abandoned him to the police or just left him for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get revenge on those bastards in especially gruesome ways.

Movie fans will recognize this as the plot of John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of my favorite crime writers ever. The protagonist of The Hunter was a guy named Parker, no first name, who went on to be the protagonist of a whole series of books that Westlake wrote under the Stark pseudonym.

It’s also the plot of Richard Kadrey’s novel Sandman Slim and you can tell that he was influenced by Westlake’s novel because he names his protagonist Stark and one of the villains Parker. And to remind us that he’s not the only person who’s ripped off this plot — heck, even Westlake was probably ripping off this plot, possibly from Shakespeare — he makes reference in the text to other variations as well, like the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The difference in Sandman Slim, which is written in the tough-guy noirish style pioneered in the 1920s and 30s by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is that the thugs are sub rosas, magic casters who live among human beings but aren’t entirely human themselves, and they didn’t send Stark to prison or leave him for dead. They literally used magic to banish him to hell — alive. While there, he fought monsters in Satan’s arena for the amusement of Satan’s generals and learned the skills of hellion magic, which is a lot nastier than the sub rosa kind. Now, with the help of the demon Azazel, his sponsor in the arena, he’s back on earth, mad as, um, hell and prepared to tear his former friends into eternally damned pieces.

Sandman Slim (the name our protagonist somehow acquires) manages the not inconsiderable feat of being both what is currently called an urban fantasy novel (to distinguish it from the Tolkien kind of fantasy) and an extremely violent hardboiled crime novel. Having once been a huge fan of this sort of novel in its more conventional form, I enjoyed it, though I have to say that the genre doesn’t hold as much interest for me now as it did when I was in my 20s and used to gobble down books by people like Hammett, Chandler, Westlake and Ross MacDonald like they were popcorn. Still, Kadrey (who has also written more conventional science fiction and fantasy) comes up with an interesting enough fantasy take on the genre to keep the book readable and inventive throughout. (There’s even a touch of Lovecraftian horror as the story goes on.) I especially like the way he uses my adopted hometown of Los Angeles as the prime setting for a war between heaven and hell (neither of which seems much nicer than the other) and a major gathering place for the sub rosa. Peacekeeping in the heaven-hell war is performed by a group of supernatural cops called The Golden Vigil, who have been around longer than civilization itself and now work with Homeland Security, and by the end of the book they’ve recruited Stark, who is both a nasty fighter with conventional techniques and an even nastier fighter with magic techniques, to do some freelance work for them. This gives Kadrey an excuse to turn Sandman Slim into a series, and he’s already written two more volumes with more presumably on the way.

I’d recommend Kadrey’s work less to people who enjoy fantasy and more to those who like their crime novels fast-moving and violent. Kadrey does a very good job of combining the fantasy and crime genres, but Sandman Slim will go down a lot easier if you’re less into hobbits and more likely to enjoy seeing a wiseass crimefighter covered with ugly hellion scars decapitate a man who goes right on talking and making wiseass comebacks while unattached to his body. Yeah, it’s that kind of book — and, yeah, I guess I’m the sort of person who enjoys it.

Going to Hell in Florida: Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Book #4 for 2012: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I’m not quite sure how to describe Swamplandia! (The exclamation point, as with Oklahoma!, is part of the title.) It’s a book about the Florida Everglades. (I guess these are the Everglades. I can’t recall if Russell ever uses that term in the book, but it’s set in Florida, there are lots of swamps and an excessive number of alligators, which sounds pretty Everglade-y to me.) It’s about the strange rural yet sophisticated cultures that grow up along the kind of byways through which tourists pass on their way to more respectable resort areas with money in their pockets to spend and kids in their pockets to spent it on. It’s about ghosts. It’s about hell. It’s about rape. It’s about an ending that would seem absurdly coincidental if the book weren’t quite so well written and hadn’t descended so far into a miasma of hallucinogenic surrealism by the time it gets there.

What it’s mostly about, though, is family.

The family it’s about comes from Ohio, but pretends to be a tribe of Florida Indians in order to run a kind of mom-and-pop amusement park called Swamplandia! on an island buried so deep in the swamps that it requires a 40-minute ferry ride to get there. The main attraction at the amusement park — perhaps “circus” actually would be a better term than “amusement park” and would tie this novel in more neatly with The Night Circus, which I read a week or so ago — involves the mother of the family, a former beauty queen in her 30s, diving into a water-filled ditch infested with alligators and emerging safely on the other side. (The alligators, which the family refers to affectionately as “Seths,” are about as dangerous as parakeets.) Swamplandia! does well as a tourist attraction without making anybody rich. And then everything goes, figuratively and quite possibly literally, to hell.

Twin disasters occur almost simultaneously. The mother dies of a particularly virulent strain of cancer, leaving behind her husband, son, two daughters and senile father, then a rival amusement park called World of Darkness opens not too far away and instantly siphons off the tourist trade. The theme of World of Darkness is, yes, hell. All of the rides and most of the snack foods are based on the premise of hot and eternal damnation. And with serious amusement park money behind it, hell proves to be a more a popular destination point than Swamplandia!’s alligator pit, so attractive that as Swamplandia!’s economic fortunes disintegrate, the son jumps ship — or, in this case, island — to go to work there. The father disappears (he has a second job, now desperately necessary to support the family, and begins to focus on it full time) and the daughters spend most of their time keeping house in what remains of their tiny Swamplandia! community, mostly just being teenage girls together.

Now here comes the big twist and I’m going to give it away because it’s not one of those neck popping twists that one might expect from the final 10 seconds of a serialized TV show but just a kind of unexpected place where the story goes: The older of the two daughters falls in love with a ghost. At least she claims that he’s a ghost. And when the hulk of an old dredging barge left over from the Great Depression turns up in an isolated place in the swamp, she claims that this was the location of his death.

To describe the plot from this point on would take too much typing and you probably don’t want me to give that much away. Suffice it to say that the sister with the crush on the ghost decides to marry him (death apparently being no obstacle), the younger sister tries to stop her but loses track of her and employs the services of a local birdman (someone who rids communities of annoying buzzards by chasing them into other communities where he can hire himself out to get rid of them all over again), the brother goes to work at World of Darkness where he inadvertently becomes a local hero, and the resulting set of individual journeys go from the bizarre to the literally hellish. In fact, much of the younger sister’s portion of the story is about a descent into what may really be hell. (The Everglades certainly seem like a good place for it.)

It’s difficult to say if Swamplandia! qualifies as a comedy, a horror novel, a family saga, a soap opera or just a fairly fast read. The characters are less quirky than the environment that they inhabit (which was something of a relief, given the quirkiness of the environment they inhabit) and the family, though they go through some travails that should qualify as nearly Shakespearean in their tragic nature, actually turn out to be surprisingly competent at negotiating the bizarre turmoil of their lives. Which shows, I guess, that being trained to wrestle alligators at a young age is pretty good preparation for just about any bad thing that can happen to you.

Untrue Lies: Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box

Book #20 for 2011: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. I wanted to like it because everyone on Amazon seems to like it and the professional reviewers did too. Heck, even the New York Times gave it a rave review when it came out back in 2007. (They had Janet Maslin, who at the time was one of their movie critics, review it.) But for some reason me and this book didn’t get along. About halfway through, I could feel the book starting to fall apart (plot-wise, not literally) and two-thirds of the way through it took a leap down the toilet (once again, not literally). But it started out very, very well.

Some background: Horror writer Joe Hill is actually Joseph Hillstrom King, son of that other horror-writing King, Stephen. He writes prose that’s very reminiscent of his father’s and he gives every appearance of having the potential to be quite good at it. (He also has the funniest Twitter feed — @Joe_Hill — that I subscribe to, though you probably have to be fond of somewhat geeky subject matter, like comic books and Joss Whedon, to appreciate the jokes.)

This is his first novel (he’s subsequently written a second) and it has a clever premise: An aging heavy metal musician, sort of a less-addled version of Ozzie Osbourne named Judas “Jude” Coyne, buys a haunted suit on an Internet auction site so he can add it to his collection of macabre memorabilia. It turns out that the suit really is haunted and that the ghost who comes with it is eager to collect Jude’s soul and send him down the “nightroad” (i.e., the road to some presumably unpleasant afterlife). In an early plot twist, Jude learns that he was suckered into buying the suit by someone who wants revenge on him, apparently because they believe that he was responsible for the suicide of one of his former girlfriends.

This is a cute idea and it gets cuter. The ghost is that of an old man who devised systems of occult-based psychological warfare for the Army during the Vietnam War, hypnotizing captured Viet Cong into doing things like cutting off their own fingers and worse. Now that he’s dead, the ghost (whose name is Craddock James McDermott) wants to convince Jude to kill himself. The novel is as much about the psychological warfare between Jude and Craddock as it’s about a typical ghostly haunting.

Hill has a strong sense of style and the book, at least in the beginning, is fun to read. I think it doesn’t hold up in the long run because Hill makes two mistakes. The first is that this plot would be adequate to fill a novella or maybe even a shorter novel, but not a novel of the length that publishers seem to demand these days (which is to say, more than 100,000 words). There are sequences, especially in the second half, where Hill seems to be padding the book’s length, stretching out scenes that would have benefitted from tightening. This is a common problem in popular novels, one that the elder King has committed on more than one occasion, and is more annoying than it is fatal.

The second, fatal error is that Hill never lays down clear rules for how his supernatural universe works, leaving Jude free to guess methods by which he can protect himself and his current girlfriend from harm by Craddock’s ghost. And, surprise, his guesses are always right. Jude guesses, based on scant evidence, that dogs can protect him from the ghost. (Who knew?) This is convenient, because Jude owns two large dogs who turn out to be remarkably hungry for ectoplasm. Jude guesses, based again on scant evidence, that ghosts can be fought with music. This is convenient because Jude is a singer-songwriter.

Pretty soon, Jude’s guesses (along with his girlfriend’s) become the primary engine with which Hill drives the plot and, frankly, this is a little tedious, not to mention unbelievable. But where my suspension of disbelief really went out the window was about two-thirds of the way through, when Jude and girlfriend face down the book’s main (living) villain, the sister of the former girlfriend. Jude guesses, based on similarly scant evidence, what really happened after the former girlfriend left him and returned to her family, and the sister, who is so evil she almost cackles, obligingly confirms it for him. It’s like that scene in every other Agatha Christie novel where Hercule Poirot pulls some ridiculously detailed solution to the mystery out of his little gray cells and confidently brings the killer to light. I never believed that scene when Agatha Christie wrote it and I don’t find it believable from Hill either.

From that point on I was reading just to get the book finished. It’s an odd thing when suspension of disbelief goes away. Before it goes away you feel like you’re reading about real people and real things that happened to them. After it goes away, you feel like you’re just reading some sort of contrived story invented by a person with a word processor. The joke, of course, is that that’s what you’ve always been reading, but suspension of disbelief has conveniently hidden that fact from you so that you could enjoy the author’s contrivances. Without suspension of disbelief, those contrivances are just well-written lies preserved on paper (or in static RAM).

And yet I still think Joe Hill has potential. He writes with wit and a certain degree of charm and at some point I’d like to read his second novel, Horns, which came out last year. (It seems to be about a guy who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s grown, well, horns.) At the moment, though, I don’t think I’m quite up for it.

Where the Hell is T.E.D. Klein?

Book #41 (November 21, 2010) Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein

In the late 1970s, in a hardback anthology of horror stories, I came across a novella called “The Events at Poroth Farm.” It was a terrific piece of slow burn Lovecraftian horror, about a professor of literature staying in a small outbuilding next to an unoccupied farmhouse who gradually becomes aware that he’s being visited by some kind of alien beings. The author, T.E.D. Klein, nailed the cosmic horror tone of Lovecraft’s later work while still maintaining a distinctive literary voice. The story was intelligent, elegantly written and genuinely scary. Klein later became editor of Twilight Zone Magazine, which (to my subsequent regret) I never read. Then, in the mid 1980s, he published two volumes of horror fiction, the long novel The Ceremonies (based loosely on “The Events at Poroth Farm”) and a collection of four novellas called Dark Gods.

I started reading this collection back in the 80s or early 90s. I got less than halfway through it not because it wasn’t a good read but because I was losing interest generally in reading. (I was born with a short attention span that just gets worse as I age.) Something reminded me of Klein recently, though, and I purchased used copies of both The Ceremonies and Dark Gods. This time I actually plan to read them.

I just finished Dark Gods and I recommend it to anyone interested in literary horror stories with a Lovecraftian influence. The stories are: “Children of the Kingdom,” about the dark secrets of a seedy Manhattan neighborhood at the time of the 1977 blackout; “Petey,” about an old house haunted not by ghosts but by strange experiments growing in jars; “Black Man with a Horn,” about an aging horror writer (apparently based on Frank Belknap Long) dealing with stories of a reclusive native race in Malaysia and his own memories of his one-time friend H.P. Lovecraft; and “Nadelman’s God,” a long story about an insurance executive who gradually realizes that at some time in his teenage years he had gotten a glimpse of a malevolent god who apparently still exists and wants to do his bidding.

Klein’s narrative voice is strong, graceful, and often humorous, and if he falls short in any area it’s one where many literary horror writers fall short: characterization. With one or two exceptions, the characters are sketchy and the dialog is unconvincing (though the cocktail party conversations in “Petey” are occasionally clever). This lack of characterization (which doesn’t seem to afflict less literary-minded horror writers like Stephen King, whose vigorously colloquial prose is a perfect vehicle for character development) is probably a deliberate choice. Lovecraft, whose stories rarely included memorable characters, was far more interested in the story’s millieu — the atmosphere of dread and the sense that the plot was moving headlong toward something so traumatizing that you’d go insane if you fully understood it. Klein doesn’t plunge quite as headlong into the horror as Lovecraft did, but he’s excellent at creating atmosphere (perhaps the greatest strength any horror writer can have) and at making cogent observations that elevate the horror well above the level of pulp.

Perhaps the saddest thing in this collection, published in paperback by Bantam Books in 1986, is the statement in the short bio of Klein in the back that says he’s become a full-time writer and is working on another novel. Yet, as anyone who has ever attempted to follow Klein’s career knows, no other novels ever appeared. (Apparently Viking announced a Klein novel called Nighttown in 1989, but it never came out.) The only things that Klein seems to have written since this collection are the screenplay to a 1994 Dario Argento horror film (Trauma) and a few short pieces, plus a collection of stories called Reassuring Tales that, aside from a couple of lukewarm reviews on the Internet, seems to have vanished without a trace. In many ways, Klein comes across here as a very promising young author (he was probably in his early 30s when most of these stories were written) who was going to write even better things in the future, but that future never seems to have happened. He’s apparently still alive — he’d be about 63 years old — but unless he’s got a large manuscript in the closet or on his hard drive, that next novel was never written.

The only explanation I can find is a quote attributed to him in Wikipedia: “I’m one of those people who will do anything to avoid writing. Anything!”

Apparently he wasn’t exaggerating.

Just a Short Walk

Book #26 (August 14, 2010): The Ruins by Scott Smith

The Ruins is the book that I’d hoped The Passage would be and everything that Lee Child’s novels are not. It’s a perfect example of a type of book that seems rarer now than it used to be, if only because I’ve gotten harder to please as I’ve grown older. It’s an intelligent thriller, carefully thought out, written in a style that is neither flamboyantly literary nor gratingly flat, with characters that are fully realized and sympathetically flawed. If you’re still looking for some good beach reading before Labor Day, grab a copy on the way to the shore and I guarantee that by the time you hit page 40 or so you’ll completely forget how uncomfortable you feel toasting in the sunlight with gobs of lotion on your skin. (Come to think of it, given some of the scenes in the book, you might become all too aware of how uncomfortable you are.)

In addition to being an intelligent thriller, The Ruins is an example of a genre I love but rarely encounter, the one where a group of people start out on a small, almost trivial adventure and then things start to go terribly, terribly wrong. This is such a small genre that right off I can only think of one other example: James Dickey’s Deliverance, which was so well written that I didn’t even notice how horrifying it was until I saw John Boorman’s hypnotic, hallucinogenic film version. (I suppose the lesson from Deliverance is that it’s possible for this sort of thing to be too well written.) Another story that falls loosely within this genre is Jack London’s terrifying short story “To Build a Fire,” where a man and a dog start out on what should be a simple walk across arctic wilderness and find themselves — the man, at any rate — in a life or death struggle.

The plot of The Ruins is somewhat on the shallow side, but you don’t notice this while you’re reading it, because Smith puts the emphasis on carefully building the suspense and keeping the POV tightly focused on each of the four main characters. It’s about a quartet of college students, two guys and two girls, on vacation in Cancún, who decide to go on a day trip into the jungle, along with a couple of foreigners they’ve met, to visit a team of archaeologists at a local ruin. They plan for this trip rather poorly, not even giving much thought as to how they’ll get back. (It involves a bus trip, a cab ride and a short walk through the jungle in a place where they aren’t likely to find another cab.) However, it turns out to be a trip that nobody really could have planned for. I’m not going to tell you any more, because to give the plot away would ruin — no pun intended — the carefully planned hook that Smith is going to put into you. This book is probably about half the length of The Passage, but it felt about one-tenth as long because I read it in rapid gulps, reluctant to come up for air.

In retrospect, I think the major problem with The Passage was that Justin Cronin didn’t build his characters as well as Smith does, though I’ll give him credit for making the attempt. Cronin’s characters seemed real in the way that the people down at the other end of your block seem real. You see them every day, you exchange a few words if you pass them on the sidewalk, but you don’t really care what they’re thinking. Smith’s characters are more like your family. If anything, you know them too well, but you always care what they’re doing and whether they’re going to hurt themselves doing it. I suspect the reason it only had a minor film version — the IMDB shows that it was an Australian production with a director and a cast I’ve never heard of — is that, stripped of the intense character detail, the plot probably seems a little silly. While Lee Child’s novels would probably work better on film, with actors to give a sense of reality to his cartoon characters, The Ruins couldn’t survive the transition, or at least it would need a top level writer-director team to pull it off and give it a properly suspenseful atmosphere.

From the reader’s point of view, though, that may be for the best. Now that you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s excellent film version of Smith’s earlier bestseller, A Simple Plan, that book has been largely spoiled for you (though, trust me, the book is even deeper and better than the film). But since it’s unlikely you’ve seen the film version of The Ruins, I say skip the film and just read the book next chance you get.

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.