The night is ours again. The vampire apocalypse is finally over.
As survivors know, the bloodletting started in 2010 with “The Passage,” an engorged thriller by Justin Cronin. A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin had published a couple of literary novels before going to the dark side and selling his projected vampire trilogy for more than $3.5 million (Fox 2000 picked up the movie rights for an additional $1.75 million). Sophisticates may have sucked their fangs, but how electrifying it felt to have a fine writer spread his wings and swoop into this garlic-breath genre. With its blood-slick pacing and sympathetic heroes, “The Passage” was a killer antidote to the CrossFit vampires colonizing the twilight.
Yes, it’s true: Cronin’s story of a bat virus that destroys human civilization got bogged down in the second volume, “The Twelve” (2012). But those of us hypnotized by this tale have been hyperventilating for the finale for four long years. Here, in “The City of Mirrors,” we finally find out what happens to the remnant of humanity that survived those decades of terror.
But beware all who enter: This is very much a sequel for the twice-bitten. The uninfected reader will wander around these dark passages entirely lost. “The City of Mirrors” opens a few years after the cataclysmic confrontation that ended Book 2. So far as anyone can tell, the vampires were all destroyed. Our modest warrior-hero Peter Jaxon eventually assumes the presidency of a bustling settlement of 100,000 souls in Texas. “People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall,” Cronin writes. “The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking.”
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Fortunately, one of the emotionally wounded characters from the previous book has found a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s determined to turn it into a latter-day Noah’s Ark — an insurance policy just in case the vamps come leaping back.
But before anybody does any leaping, “The City of Mirrors” slows down so much you can barely find a pulse. There’s even a 100-page novella dumped in here about a lonely kid who goes to Harvard, falls in love with his buddy’s girlfriend, and eventually gets jilted as he waits for her in Grand Central Terminal. In the intervening century, he’s devolved into some kind of vampiric Miss Havisham, determined to make the whole world pay for his broken heart. That it’s ludicrous is forgivable; that it’s boring is not. In fact, it’s not till Page 291 — when most novels would be drawing to a merciful close — that our half-human/half-vampire heroine announces, “It’s started.”
But at least from this point onward, “The City of Mirrors” is a flesh-ripping terror-fest. Even before you can see them, the vampires start flocking: “The crowns of the trees tossed as if by the wind of an approaching storm.” Get a taste of these fresh vampires emerging from the ground:
“Like pupae struggling free of their protective coverings, the members of the pod appeared in stages: first the pearlescent tips of their claws, then the long bony fingers, followed by a busting of soil that laid bare their sleek, inhuman faces to the stars. They rose, shaking off the dirt with a doglike motion, and stretched their slumberous limbs. . . . [Their] identities lay beyond their powers of recollection, for they had none; all they had was a mission. They saw the farmhouse.”
Cronin picks open the wound with a few unnerving disappearances, but then once the lights go out, he launches breathtaking Homeric battles between viral hordes and soft-bellied humans. Back in New York, the conflict soars from one abandoned skyscraper to another — a spectacular clash that looks ready-made for Ridley Scott. And he’s even more frightening in crowded, locked rooms where sweaty survivors listen to the vamps sniffing under the door. The lucky ones are eaten alive; the others become blood brothers of the nastiest sort.
It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday. Inexplicably, the passing of a millennium and the murder of 7 billion people have given birth to a new civilization pretty much like ours. “History teaches us that there are no guarantees,” drones some professor at an academic conference around the year 3000. “We ignore the lessons of the Great Catastrophe at our peril,” he says, which suggests that platitudes, like cockroaches, will survive us all.
What good is immortality, Count Dracula might wonder, if the distant future is so deadeningly familiar?
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Wednesday at 7 p.m., Justin Cronin will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Justin Cronin
Ballantine. 624 pp. $28