Sunday, August 1, 2010

Vampires (with spoilers)

From where I write this near the DFW metroplex, we are smack dab in the middle of 100-degree-plus temps this week.  Life goes on but it is decidedly NOT pleasant.  It is the perfect excuse to curl up with a nice summertime gettaway in book form.  (beware, there be spoilers ahead)

Not that Cronin needs FU's support, but I recently finished his vampire apocalypse tome, The Passage, and can report that it is the best entry in the Matheson-King-McCammon school of horror that I've read in recent memory.  Calling The Passage --much less Swan Song, The Stand, or I Am Legend-- horror misses so much of what is great in these books, but in this comparison the frequent reader will have a good feel for what to expect.  I picked up The Passage on a whim when I could not find anything else interesting and had no idea that it was a vampire novel.  Had I known, I probably would have put it back on the shelf.  With two of our daughter's obsessions with all things Twilight (and a dash of Patricia Briggs in all fairness), I'm numbed to the whole vampire thing.  It's one horror trope that I've never written about and between Carrion Comfort, The Lost Art of Twilight, They Thirst, Carmilla, and The Tain, I start to believe that all the interesting explorations in this space have been made.

Then something like The Strain comes along.  Which, with some time to think about it, is a pretty by-the-numbers vampirism-as-epidemic tale, mixed with the Helsing analogue who lived through the worst horrors of WWII, mixed with the classic big-bad-ancient-vamp-master.  It was fun to read, though, and seemed to imply a narrative path ahead that could prove more interesting and daring that the typical vampire tale.

This is where The Passage excels beyond a good entry in the the vampire pantheon like The Strain.  The vampires of The Passage are of the same vampirism-as-epidemic type as The Strain.  Where The Strain's vamps are biologically interesting but essentially vampires in the 'needing a wooden stake through the heart' sense of the word, the virals of The Passage are big, bad killer-things with a residual sense of their lost humanity that affects their behavior.  Add in some echoes of Carrion Comfort's mind-vamps, and a more naturalistic good-vs-evil showdown far after 'the end of the world', and what I finished reading in The Passage seemed a non-vampire novel in many of the same ways that Simmon's did as well.  And they both are better books for the fact.  Here we are not constrained by the tired rules and superstitions of creature-type.  Sun will kill them, but mess with a nest of these nasties, and they will come for you, sun or no.

During much of the book we are far into a world destroyed and lost to the viral menace.  We have our Whedon-esque  savior chick(s), An old black lady oracle (no apologies to Stephen King) in an apocalypse that is spiritual in nature (souls and an afterlife are pretty much confirmed, it seemed to my reading).  Like Swan Song, if the book weren't so good, we'd want to cry foul at the similarities.  But where King's country grandma seemed about as deep as the phrase 'country grandma' (I love Stephen King, by the way: but up to The Stand, he'd not yet written a female with much depth), Cronin's Auntie we get to know from childhood, so that her idiosyncrasies --such as the tea that she makes, or the stars that she yearns for-- have roots that we perceive in those lost times of childhood.

Several characters are introduced with often extensive flashbacks.  The first chapter concerns the life of a girl that gives birth to another character but is otherwise absent from the novel.  This sharing of the character's histories could come across as unfocused, but in fact it is rare that one of these sequences does not inform a later one.  In particular, the final appearance of the Babcock character is transformed from what could have been a typical action movie type sequence into something that struck this reader as almost beautiful in its intimations of redemption.  And this was achieved through reference to just such a knowledge of a character's backstory.

In sum, The Passage is worth your time.  BUT, only after you read Clockwork Phoenix 3.

Take care,