Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More on...

...The Passage.

For the much-ballyhooed "vampire novel of the summer" -- it was a real let-down. Coming in at under 1,000 pages but solidly above 500 -- Cronin resorts to more cheap tricks in the last 100 pages than a dime-store romance novelist. Barbara Cartland at her best at least never tried to pretend she was doing anything other than what was right on the page. Cronin is always trying to pretend he's doing something he isn't: the more he gets into what should be solid horror novel territory, the more he backpedals and tries to head back into modern lit-fic. If you're gonna do it, do it. If you're not prepared, don't show up.

So, with as few spoilers as possible (and I do apologise for not putting a proper spoiler warning on my previous post about this book), lets get into a little hack-job reviewing, shall we? It's the middle of the work week after a long holiday weekend -- at least in the US it is; since I've no idea where you might be reading this from, I can't speak for your personal experience! -- and we're all a bit bitter about going back to the office right now, yes? Good. I thought so.

After the first 250 pages -- pretty good -- and the second 250 -- derivative, but okay -- we reach the last 300 (plus or minus) (checking the library cataloging record, I see that the book clocks in at 766 pages. It feels longer, believe me).

We have established the "vamp" apocalypse and waded through a writer's workshop exercise in worldbuilding. I think this is part of the problem: Cronin is fascinated by the idea of creating the post-apocalyptic world -- but it simply isn't very believable and, once having made it, he doesn't want to break it. Or ding it. Or mar it in really any meaningful way.


Cronin posits that, in the final days of the "vamp"-pocalypse when the infection is coming, the infected are spreading, people know enough to try to get the fuck out of Dodge. The government arranges evacuation trains -- but only for children. Okay, fine. So people get their kids on these trains and they're sent away to various secluded, well-protected colonies. Also fine. Good idea, really. The kids arrive at these colonies -- and are left. No adults. No care-takers. No Army -- "the Army" has later become a kind of short-hand both for the adult world that will come and rescue them -- and for the adult world that abandoned them when they were children. (Interesting thoughts both; don't get attached: they go nowhere.) Obviously, the colonies live and thrive and work out a way of being in the infected world that involves big lights and tall walls and lots of security and a fair amount of paranoia.

This is all well and good -- skipping past the last days of the apocalypse is an okay plot trick. It moves us on, lets us get some perspective -- all right. The problem here is that, in order to give us all this information, Cronin resorts to using a series of quoted diaries and letters from people who survive. And who survive not only the initial apocalypse but all these events he is now busily and minutely telling us about. To top this? Cronin heads his chapters and sections with long quotations noted as being from an academic conference being held to examine all these events!

So what was that noise at the back there?

Yup, that was tension just walking out the door right there. Hear the slam? Yup -- gone forever.

There is no doubt here. People will survive 'cause -- well, we're just awesome that way. Despite the mammoth numbers of genetically mutated humans who glow in the dark and can spring 50 feet straight into the air and are ungodly strong...yeah, we're just that fucking cool. The flip side to that, of course, is that the infected are just that dumb. Okay, if you must have stupid undead hordes, you must, but-- Cronin posits "vamps" hooked up psychically to some kind of uber-vamp-mind controlled by the first baker's dozen of the infected who are, in turn, being infected by "the Babcock." (And here's a suggestion: if you're going to have an evil psychic uber-vamp who is determined to make the world play out on a large scale his suffering as a psychotic child abuse victim, don't give him a name that's reminiscent of a Woody Allen accountant. It just sounded like a worse joke every time it got repeated.) And this is another cool idea -- that goes nowhere. The "vamps" are getting into people's dreams, controlling them like blood-bonded servants without biting them. That is just made of awesome -- and it goes nowhere.

Okay, so problem number one is, really, the post-apocalyptic world. It doesn't work. It's isn't believable. The children who were evacuated are meant to range in age from about two to thirteen or fourteen. At that age, kids know how the world works and some of them -- most of them, I'd say -- are pretty damn invested in seeing that it stays the same damned way. And the idea is that kids from all over, all classes, all sorts of families, all kinds of areas, are just mixed together in these trains and then in these Colonies. Some of these kids are going to be freakin' married to the status quo, particularly in a time of upheaval, change, fright, and despair as they have to leave their families. What are they going to want when they hit this Colony? Things to be just like they were before. Or -- maybe just a little difference. So 90 years on? Yeah, I imagine it would look a little freaky-deaky -- but rather like the "real world" slipped out of focus, or moved a few feet off its base. Like watching a 3D movie without the glasses.

But apparently these children took the world they remembered, crumpled it up, threw it out, and began again with some kind of weird-ass Lost-meets-Lord of the Flies scenario. Children are kept secluded from all adults except "The Teacher" until they're about nine -- and don't tell me that isn't just a tad bit weird -- and then reintroduced into the community. There are grades or guilds of workers in the Colony: guards, technicians -- and then kind of vast mash of "everyone else."

And from this mix of people, Cronin posits a world that's kind of like Roland of Gilead's Mid-World, except not as complete and not as well-thought out. These are the kind of settlements the slow mutants put together -- or the infected "greenies" out in the desert wastelands. The Colony we are concerned with is a group of about 500 people, adults, adolescents, and children at this point, in a small "town" area. They've walled it in and installed huge klieg lights which scare off the "smokes," as the "vamps" are called for no particularly evident reason. (Another problem -- Cronin assumes vocabulary shifts, naturally enough, but neither explains them, nor allows his characters to explain them for him. Tanith Lee in Biting the Sun, he is not.)

It just doesn't work. And I'm not entirely sure why: part of it is that in other post-apocalypse stories I've seen that I buy into -- The Road, Mad Max and The Road Warrior, the Dark Tower series -- there are bits and shards of the "old" world still around: books, toys, machines, video-tapes, jewellery, for God's sake! and here there's nothing. There are some machines that the technicians -- and only the technicians -- understand how to work or repair (and they're slowly breaking down), but that's it. No-one has so much as a ball-point pen.

And it's only been 90 years! It isn't like the infected destroy materiel -- they just take people. There's nothing in the "before" story that says "And then the Army set fire to cities" or "And then there were riots that took out every town between the Pacific and Atlantic."

The evacuated children would remember their parents, other siblings who didn't make it, friends, teachers -- and all of that just went "phut" when the gates closed on the Colony? Some of them brought stuff with them -- that all just vanished? Yeah, there's this thing called "sharing" where the supplies for the Colony are put in a central location and, literally, shared out and that makes total sense -- high-end recycling -- but people always -- and I do mean always -- sneak personal stuff with them. Watches, pens, books, photographs, CDs, glasses, rings, bracelets -- there is no way to make a new grouping of people this clean without a lot of planning and searching. It doesn't even work with prisoners except at seriously high-security facilities.

So there's that.

Of course, the Colony has to go. Any idiot can see that. So our little group of semi-intrepid semi-heroes sets off on the classic "trek to find the truth." All this is spurred by the arrival at the Colony of Amy, the 14th person to get infected by the virus back 90 years ago. She may or may not be infected, doesn't seem "vampiric," and seems more than mildly psychic. Oh, and she doesn't talk, but she does have a radio transmitter in her neck which is continually receiving a message saying "If you find her, bring her here" and a set of coordinates.

Thus, the trek.

Which takes forever and is unbelievably predictable. There are the large ruined cities -- courtesy of Resident Evil 2 and 3; the attack when the group is bivouacking in the city -- courtesy of 28 Days Later, The Stand, and pretty much every other zombie movie ever made; the colony of people in the middle of nowhere who are doing suspiciously well and are suspiciously welcoming of everyone, particularly the women -- courtesy also of 28 Days Later, The Road, Mad Max, and so on and so forth.

And then there's the line that lets you know who have just slogged through nearly 600 pages of material for no good end. One of our noble little crew has been kidnapped by the "vamps" and then returned -- unharmed, just a pointless plot cul-de-sac, folks, nothing to see here -- and another character asks her what happened. She can't remember and, in reply, he says, alluding to other people from his community who have been taken and returned and cannot remember what happened: "The trauma was simply too great."


Wrong answer.

You are a horror novel. I don't care how many awards your author has for doing other things where phrases like that are acceptable. In this case, they're not. You are about trauma. All the nasty shit other genres don't deal with? That is your stock and trade: blood, rape, murder, death, mayhem, betrayal, angst, pain, anger, hatred, incest, fear, agony, pain, disgust -- all of that. It doesn't have to be explicit: you don't have to splash blood up the walls or hang guts from the ceiling; you don't have to have genetically mutated octopi crawling in the windows or giant spiders in the cellar; nobody's head needs to spin around 360 degrees and there is no need for pea soup (unless you want these things, of course.) But you never get to say, "The trauma was too great."

And on that note, we cue the music, folks.

Oh, I could go on.

There's the wretched character death -- and rebirth -- in the last 50 pages; the meaningless pregnancy and birth; and the completely awful deus ex machina on the last page -- but it isn't worth it.

To my mind, once that phrase "The trauma was simply too great" has been uttered, all bets are off, clean the tables, time to turn out the lights.

We're done.

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