Posts Tagged ‘The Passage’

  Oh dear. 

I fear I’m going to be unpopular here because I’ve heard so much good about this book. People have raved about it. A friend, whose book recommendations I’ve often been steered well by, re-reads it. Monthly. 

So I apologise in advance. 

I found it to be… okay. 

It was standard zombie post-apocalyptic horror fare with a fairly interesting twist.  

Let’s look at the world building first … World building? World destruction? Whatever. It is set in the UK which makes a nice change from the almost ubiquitous American settings. This is, perhaps, not hugely surprising as M. R. Carey hails from Liverpool but the occasional  reference (like the one to David Attenborough) gives it, momentarily, a very British feel. The setting, however, quickly became fairly generic: generic Army base; generic devastated countryside; generic infected cities. 

But one of the pleasures of zombie novels, for me, is the imagined mechanics of it all. Mira Grant’s Feed books had a credible virus-origin; World War Z felt credible enough; Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a little convenient and vague. The infection here, however, is fungal rather than viral and rooted in real science: the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis  fungus apparently does infect and change the behaviours of ants which actually is genuinely amazing! And it must be true: it’s on Wikipedia here! It is one of those facts that does shift your perception of the natural world. These are fungi, pretty much the most basic organism in the world. Taking control of an insect. In the world of the novel, a mutated form of this fungus does the same in people, destroying the higher functions of the brain and exaggerating the hunger. 

So far, so good: a pretty solid creation. The twist comes in the form of the ten-year old protagonist Melanie: infected but somehow retaining her higher processes: language, memory, intelligence, which we are told repeatedly is at genius-level, emotion and empathy. We first meet her along with nearly two dozen other children, housed in a cell, strapped into a wheelchair and transported back and forth to have classes with a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Occasionally, children are removed by Doctor Caldwell to be dissected. As a reader, we catch on fairly quickly, and Melanie’s partial understanding and her almost wilful refusal to confront it is managed well enough. 

Although not first person, the point of view is generally Melanie’s and the language seems to match it with a simplicity and clarity and naivety which is pretty effective. But the voice doesn’t change when our point of view does which don’t seem terribly well managed. Equally clumsily done are the various infodumps about the infection: even Justineau asks Caldwell why she’s telling her how the infection began. 

In terms of structure and plot, it progresses in the only real way it could: the security of the base is compromised; a small band of survivors flee, heading for Beacon, some safe holdfast south of London. On the way, Carey tries to develop the back stories of his characters before the inevitable occurs. 

And that was where the novel faltered, for me. The characters never emerged from two-dimensionality: Parks was always the gruff but well-meaning Sargeant; Gallagher, always the immature innocent soldier caught up in a war he did not understand; Caldwell never became more than a female Dr Mengele; Justineau the compassionate. And they were so incredibly stupid! Heading for cities where the concentration of zombies was at its highest; approaching a zombie in the street. Even Melanie, who was the most intriguing of them all, didn’t really engage me. I’d seen it done before in Cronin’s The Passage and between Melanie and Amy Harper Bellafonte, there is no contest.

I mean, don’t get me wrong… This is not a bad book; it’s a decent read and a good example of the genre; it’s not lyrical or beautiful in its language but it is well written and well paced. It’s a decent book. I just don’t get the huge praise I’ve heard about it. 

Maybe it’s me. 

Maybe I’m missing something. 

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Oh dear.

What a let down.

I was really looking forward to this one. And now I feel just… let down.

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I’ve read some great books recently: emotional, lyrical, beautiful. I wasn’t expecting any of that from The Strain. I was looking forward to an enjoyable, rollicking horror vampire fantasy in the style of del Toro’s Mimic, Hellboy or Splice. If I was lucky, it could have been as powerful as the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth.

It wasn’t either.

It was… lazy. Somehow.

Pedestrian.

The basic plot revolves around the arrival of a mysteriously darkened plane into New York JFK Airport. Once opened, the plane is found to be full of dead passengers and crew. Not a bad premise and I imagine deliberately reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s arrival into Whitby on the crewless Demeter.

We are led through the investigations into this dead plane by Ephraim Goodweather, a CDC epidemiologist. He is our main protagonist and del Toro and Hogan succeed in investing him with almost no personality. There’s a somewhat limp attempt to create a personal back story: he is separated from his wife and fighting to retain partial custody of his son. The writing here was almost embarrassingly pedestrian:

“For a lot of other guys Eph knew, men in a situation similar to his own, their divorce seemed to have been as much from their children as from their wives. Sure, they would talk the talk, how they missed their kids, and how their ex-wives kept subverting their relationship, blah, blah, but the effort never seemed to be there. A weekend with their kids became a weekend out of their new life of freedom. For Eph, these weekends with Zack were his life.”

It seems bizarre that a filmmaker with such a vivid visual imagination felt the need to tell rather than show. The same awkward gauche approach is applied to Eph’s relationship with his almost silent colleague, lover and fellow vampire-hunter, Nora Martinez.

Poor Nora. She was sidelined so far she was barely on the same page.

She was even made to stay home to babysit Zack whilst the men went out to hunt the vampires. She was no Mina Harker!

Just flicking back through the book, nearly every page has ridiculous language. It’s not even tongue in cheek, so-bad-it’s-good… It’s just badly written. I mean, take this as an example:

“Eph too had been turned. Not from human to vampire, but from healer to slayer.”

Oh. Oh dear.

Now, let’s turn instead to the vampires. I suppose they didn’t sparkle in the sunlight. They had a retractable proboscis-like stinger which darted from the mouth instead of fangs. Why? I imagine the intention was to ramp-up the visceral icky-factor. But, again, the ready appellation of stinger was applied and all the descriptive power dissipated. It could have – should have – been a depiction from a nightmare, dripping, oozing, moist and phallic… But it became just a stinger.

The physiology of the vampire was explained in tedious detail: blood worms transmitted the virus which converted the human physiology into a vampiric one. Cancerous growths on the organs take over and subvert them. After a day and a night, those bitten become stumbling new-born vampires. They have more in common with zombies than vampires: uncoordinated, shuffling and rather easy to kill.

And, seriously, worms?

It felt almost as if del Toro and Hogan didn’t agree on how to portray the vampires. Are they supernatural deriving from the blood of an Archangel? Are they infected with parasitic worms? Are they infected with a virus? It just feels messy. There is patently a larger story than is contained in this novel and it may be that these confusions are resolved later. But I’m not sure that I’m prepared to give my time to those books to find out.

A number of reviews on Goodreads compare this favourably with The Passage by Justin Cronin. That, I don’t see. The Passage was a wonderful, vivid and mythic reinvention of the vampire. The Strain Is everything I worried The Passage might be: dull, tedious in its violence, superficial in its characterisation and pedestrian in its language.

There is a TV show of the book.

I’m not inclined to watch.

It’s a strange thing with books. You can start one – particularly a lengthy one like this – and things get in the way of you finishing it. That’s not the strange thing. That – I imagine – is familiar. Maybe you put it down because work has become hectic or your baby is born and you think I’ll come back to it in a couple of days but you end up never quite having the time. That happened with me and The Twelve, the second in Cronin’s The Passage trilogy. But the strange thing that I mentioned at the beginning if this paragraph is that, however long I leave a book for, once I’ve picked it up again, it’s all just there! No re-reading needed. It’s as if I open a door and step back into their world without a pause. Like Narnia. So picking up The Twelve again, I stepped back through into Cronin’s world.

And it is a dark and twisted world: humanity has been almost wiped out by the vampiric virals from The Passage (for my review of which, see here) and little pockets are all that is left. In The Passage, those pockets were struggling to survive; in The Twelve, they’re starting to fight back and this gives the sequel a very different feel to the original. Our main characters have become militarised. It is, perhaps, analogous to the different tone of Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. For me, personally, I was significantly more engaged by the characters in the first book: their relations were more complex, more human and more credible.

Amy Harper Bellafonte – The Girl From Nowhere – injected with the virus which produced the vampires as a child but somehow retaining her humanity – a single character connecting the time before and the time after – was such a massively evocative and engaging character in The Passage that I felt almost cheated by her demotion in this sequel. She became almost a secondary character until the finale.

Her role is almost taken by Lawrence Grey, the janitor who was taken by Zero when he escaped; and by Anthony Carter, the one innocent man among the twelve convicts who were originally infected. We see Grey in the aftermath of the Twelve’s escape forming a bond with Lila Kyle – Brad Wolgast’s mentally unstable estranged wife – but eventually captured by Horace Guilder. The relationship between Grey and Kyle was quite affecting as Kyle retreats from the horrors around her into a fantasy world. Both characters were engagingly vulnerable but the extensive and exhaustive prolongation of her fantasy did start to become tedious.

What I did like was the reversal of the antagonists: the eponymous twelve themselves were fairly distant and abstract with, literally, a walk-on part. The real antagonist was Horace Guilder: capturing Grey and assuming the role of Lila Kyle’s husband, he realises that Grey’s blood can keep him alive. Grey is, therefore, imprisoned and farmed for his blood for a century.

Guilder becomes a collaborator with the virals – thanks to Lila’s warped sense of reality, his ability to manipulate her and her ability to control the virals – and founder of The Homeland. The Homeland is a city-state run on a quasi-religious totalitarian basis, capturing free humans to use as slave labour in concentration camp conditions. The true horrors are committed here by humans against humans: maltreatment, a feedlot of virals to feed dissidents and insurgents to (taking the place of the gas chambers), torture, rape and the farming of bodily fluids from men, women and children. Cronin did succeed in creating an intriguing antagonist in Guilder: he is simultaneously demonic and ridiculous; totalitarian and impotent; a true grotesque.

In all, this book felt like a bridge between the first and last books on the trilogy. It almost felt as if the mechanics of the virals – that each of the Twelve governed a massive pod of virals who they had turned and who could be destroyed en masseby killing the appropriate member of the Twelve who had sired them – was too cumbersome. It would have needed perhaps one book for each of the Twelve and become really repetitive! So Cronin used this book to simultaneously build up Zero as the ultimate antagonist and dispatch the other Twelve. I would be interested to know whether the original plan was for three of twelve books….

The prose of The Twelve also seemed to me more prosaic, less varied and less lyrical than The Passage.

Was this a good novel? Yes, of course it was! The world and the characters in particular are engaging and interesting. I find the religious parallels at best a tad contrived and occasionally uncomfortable. And yes I am looking forward to a showdown between Lish, Amy (and perhaps Carter) with Zero – previously known as Tim Fanning and the first to be infected in the wilds of Bolivia in The Passage.

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Its odd how my book reading lurks in certain genres for a while: after a crime spree, I notice a range of horror books collecting on the pages of this blog – with more on my to-be-read list.

I wonder what it is with Scandi-Lit.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; Jo Nesbø; Mons Kallentoft … There seems to be a certain sensibility that they share; a sensitivity for the darkest recesses of the human psyche; an unflinching a sense of social responsibility; a sympathy for the effects of the environment surrounding their characters; a keen eye for the intricate details of domestic life; and a spareness and economy of language.

And Lindqvist’s vampire novel, Let The Right One In fits into exactly this milieu.

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This is the story of Oskar, 12 year old boy, whose divorced parents struggle to keep him on the straight and narrow in the suburb of Blackeberg.

It is a typical – slightly pretentious – English teacher thing to say that the setting is a character in its own right but it is so infrequently actually true. James Joyce’s Dublin od Ulysses and The Dubliners manages it. Lindqvist’s Blackeberg also breathes and seethes throughout the novel, as dark, poisonous and insidious as the vampire itself.

The novel opens with The Location:

Blackeberg.

It was not a place that developed organically of course. Here, everything was carefully planned from the outset. And people moved into what had been built for them. Earth-coloured concrete buildings scattered about in green fields.

Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, children didn’t get to do any special projects about Blackeberg’s history because there wasn’t one. That is to say, there was something about an old mill. A tobacco king. Some strange old buildings down by the water. But that was a long time ago and without any connection to the present.

Where the three-storied apartment buildings now stood there had been only forest before.

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, it’s rationality. It tell you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and if terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

No one saw them move in.

Blackeberg – soulless and bereft of history – is an echo of the vampire itself – equally soulless and utilitarian in its hunger. It is the home of glue-sniffing teenagers, broken families, a community of drunkards, vicious bullies and the mentally disturbed.

And it is into this environment that the waif like and mysterious Eli and the hopeless hapless lumbering paedophile Hakan Bengtsson move.

And children start dying.

The plot in the novel moves with an horrific sense of inevitability. The situation is achingly familiar to anyone who has even the vaguest notion of vampirism. We know the hunger. We know the inevitable conflict that that hunger creates.

But the heart of this novel is Eli and the relationship between Eli and Oskar. Eli has endured two centuries of being twelve years old. Vampire. Manipulator. Killer. Innocent.

She is not the monster of Stoker’s invention – indeed Hakan is possibly the closest to that role – nor is she the insipid and limp fairy of Meyer’s Twilight series. Somehow the balance between her feeding – as with much Scandinavian Literature, explored without blushing from the visceral – and her childish innocence is maintained throughout. She is a remarkable achievement and a haunting creation. She is not dissimilar at all to Amy Harper Bellafonte in Justin Cronin’s The Passage (click here for my review) and The Twelve

And some of the dialogue between her and Oskar is heart-achingly realistic and beautiful.

As indeed is some of the dialogue and interactions between the drunkards, especially Virginia and Lacke. Isolated and alone, seeking comfort in alcohol and one-night stands, their helpless inability to communicate and their self-protective barbs needling each other to maintain the protective bubbles whilst simultaneously clinging to each other was painful.

The book is not without flaws – the almost inevitable attempt to explain the vampirism in medical terms – that the infection causes a tumour of brain cells to develop on the heart (and recalled unpleasant memories of ovarian dermoid cysts being opened up on some Channel Four documentary to reveal teeth, eyes and hair). There is also at one point a rather clumsy attempt to verbalise some of the implicit connections between the environment and the disease at the heart of the novel.

It is, however, quite simply one of the best, most haunting books – certainly one of the very best vampire books – that I have read.