In 2010, just when we’d all had enough of Bowflex vampires, the Count got a desperately needed transfusion from an unlikely donor: An English professor at Rice University named Justin Cronin had been patiently digging in the graveyard of literary fiction for 20 years. He’d graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’d received nice reviews and won a PEN/Hemingway Award and a Whiting Award — prizes that can drive dozens of people to buy your books. . . .
But then his 9-year-old daughter suggested he write about a girl who saves humanity from destruction, and the undead swooped in with a multimillion-dollar book-and-movie deal.
“The Passage,” Book 1 of Cronin’s vampire apocalypse, was the scariest, most entertaining novel I’d read in a long time. The story described a government experiment that accidentally unleashes a dozen rapacious vampires who kill or enlist almost everyone in the United States, toppling the government, destroying the economy and leaving the country with just a few isolated pockets of terrified survivors struggling to keep the lights on. Somehow, the author of such quiet, tender stories as “Mary and O’Neil” had a facility with suspense and terror that could make you check the locks (twice), mix up a garlic smoothie and rush through pages till long past midnight. Here were the necrotic limbs of classic horror and biomedical thrillers zapped back to life by a writer of engaging characters, transporting scenes and elegantly creepy language.
Now, finally, comes the long-awaited second volume, and as much as it pains me to say it, “The Twelve” bites.
Fans will remember that Book 1 ended with a heart-pounding confrontation and chase scene. We’ve all been waiting to see what happens next to those valiant warriors, but Book 2 opens at the speed of a zombie crawl. Inexplicably, we’re back at Year Zero, when the vampires first escaped from a secret Colorado lab. Not that there’s much drama involved this time around: These snapshots of collapsing civilization seem incidental compared with the cacophony of panic that Cronin created in Book 1. Given what we already know, this 150-page interlude involving a grieving mother and a Machiavellian government official is all backing and filling. My canine teeth came in faster.
What’s truly bizarre is that a novel so burdened with exposition manages to provide so little necessary explanation. Don’t even think about starting this volume if you haven’t committed the first one to memory. I’m reminded of that famous quip about Henry James Sr., who wrote a book called “The Secret of Swedenborg” and kept it. In “The Twelve,” disembodied presences whisper enigmatic messages; characters you thought were dead aren’t (sort of); everyone suffers from old traumas they don’t want to talk about. Names, places and references to previous events churn through these pages in a soporific blur. It’s like going to your second wife’s 20th high-school reunion.
The first excitement saunters in around Page 200, when a couple of brave soldiers from Book 1, Alicia and Peter, are tracking down one of the original 12 “virals” in a cave. But even that spooky scene is over before you can say “Vlad the Impaler.” Who is that creature they find deep underground? What are the virals plotting? Cronin is so good with the careful, restrained building of terror that the real mystery here is why he gives himself so little room to do it.
One long strand of the plot involving soldiers and oil workers in Texas provides little more than strategy meetings, which chills me all the way down to my day planner. Characters who have devolved into action heroes speak in thick, corny dialogue: “You’re a good soldier, Peter. You always have been, and I wasn’t lying about that uniform. It does suit you.” (Please, creatures of the night, rip his throat out.)
Again and again, suspense is drained away by the book’s choppy structure, as though the dastardly government virus that caused vampirism also caused attention deficit disorder. When the various parts of this ramshackle plot finally came together, I couldn’t tell if I were truly grateful or just suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
But if you hang on till Page 300, you’ll make it to the Homeland in Iowa, almost 100 years in the future. Here, some 70,000 hopeless people are kept imprisoned by a class of collaborators who stay eternally young (and sterile) by sipping infected blood. If not exactly frightening, this section at least lets an engaging story develop about a despotic bureaucrat, an insane queen and the wily rebels determined to bring them down. Echoes of North Korea and the Nazis’ concentration camps are mixed effectively with satire of our War on Terror. (Apparently, “enhanced interrogation” has the longevity of Dracula himself. The camp’s commander mutters comically Bush-like regrets that “the cautious application of the waterboard is simply unavoidable.” )
Alas, the ending of “The Twelve” delivers only a pale version of the thrilling climax of “The Passage.” And the whole story offers all the sexual tension of a Kansas-approved middle-school summer-reading book. What’s really missing, though, is that unsettling sense of the alienness of the future that Cronin conveyed so tremendously in his previous volume. “The Twelve” gives little sense of the weird transmutations of culture, faith and science that the next century will deliver whether or not we’re ravaged by vampires. Instead, we get buff paragons of bravery running around in tattered uniforms, firing big guns and blowing stuff up while spouting grandiose phrases about the survival of humanity.
The light hasn’t completely gone out of this series, but beware: It’s fading into “Twilight.”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Justin Cronin
568 pp. $28