Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

The Passage, by Justin Cronin, is one of those books that is less a book and more of an event. I first heard of it a year ago, when news of his sale broke. Cronin, an accomplished literary author, sold the rights to The Passage for $3.75 million, with a film deal to Ridley Scott for another $1.75 million, based on just the first 120 pages or so. So I've been waiting all this time, ever since, to see what kind of book is worth all that money.

The Passage is the story of a government experiment gone terribly wrong. In its quest to create a super-soldier, using a vampire virus, the U.S. government unwittingly unleashes the apocalypse. But this virus is different from other literary viruses: it's victims become vampires. They are fast, they are strong, and they are bloodthirsty. They don't just nibble at necks, and they don't moon around over teenage girls. These vampires tear people apart literally. At one point, a solider "experiences the sensation, utterly new to him, of being torn in half." As the virus spreads, a plague of bloodsuckers draining the continent of people, the world's hopes reside in a young girl named Amy, who is introduced in the first sentence as the Girl from Nowhere, the Girl who Lived a Thousand Years. Amy doesn't talk much, but she shares a bond with the vampires that confuses and confounds the few remaining survivors.

The first act of The Passage is nearly perfect. Cronin is a hell of a writer. He takes time with his characters; he builds them and we know them. The tension is palpable as we wait for the hammer to fall, because we know it must. His observations are razor sharp, and the book possesses a specificity of detail that is staggering. It's complete, thorough world-building—you literally go down the rabbit hole as the vampires take over.

After the virus, or AV, the survivors hole up in a walled compound known as the Colony where they light the night with powerful banks of lights to keep away the virals (or smokes or dracs). At this point, the narrative leaps forward almost a century, and every character we met in the first act is gone. Now the book's debt to its predecessors becomes more plain. We are treated to snippets of the familiar: the paranoid, fearful waiting of I Am Legend, the savagery of 28 Days Later, the mysticism of The Stand and hopelessness of The Road. Unfortunately, Cronin never establishes the same visceral connection with his new batch of survivors—except perhaps Alicia Donadio, who he obviously has great affection for. Nevertheless, the strength and ambition of the original idea propels the book relentlessly for hundreds of pages, so even if the characters themselves sometimes melt into their own narratives, the fact that the virals are out there in the night is never far away.

Read it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Whew. That was Rough

Guess what I just did? I just synced up a Twitter feed with Facebook via Tweetdeck. Ha ha! Just this morning, that sentence would have been incomprehensible to me, but it's done now.

Along the same lines, I'm keeping this blog and blog title, but I'm retired LurkerMonkey as my name. Why? Oh jeesh. The thing is, I'm feeling the urge to consolidate all the various chunks of my personality. You know how it feels to stare into a cluttered closet and it just looks like a pile of crap? That's a little how I'm feeling about the whole Internet thing right now, like I've got little pieces of myself scattered all over the place, but it doesn't hang together. Like a continuity editor would look at it and their head would explode.

So there you go ... and from now on, when I comment or post, I'll be doing it under my own name.

Goodbye, LurkerMonkey.

Checking My Twitter Feed

Yeah, that's right. It's just what it says ... I got sucked into Twitter this afternoon, so I'm setting up an RSS feed from this blog to my Twitter account. And this is just to see if all these magical things actually happen!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Man in the Mirror

Kim was a beautiful girl, in a small-town sort of way. She was blonde and, well, built, and she had been crowned the queen of whatever fruit or vegetable her town was known for. Cherry queen? Onion princess? Something like that. She was also her high school's homecoming princess and, when I met her in college, dead set on marrying her middle school sweetheart, who she was still dating from a distance. I always thought it was kind of a shame that Kim was still so attached to this guy hundreds of miles away, because she was completely off the market. Aggressively off the market. Adamantly off the market. To the point that she wore both a commitment ring and his class ring on a chain around her neck.

Kim attracted a fair amount of attention in her small town—she said it used to creep her out when her dad's friends hit on her. But nothing compared to this story.

Kim's house was a single-story ranch house in a wide open neighborhood with wooded lots between the homes. Her bed was pushed up against the wall, facing a large vanity across the room. She slept with her head toward the wall, just under a large window that let in the moonlight and summer breezes when she kept it open.

Her senior year, Kim started to get funny vibes. She couldn't explain it exactly, but she started to feel like she was being watched, that sometimes a car would pass her house a few extra times, or that someone—she couldn't say who—was watching her when she got out of school. Then the phone calls started. It was mostly heavy breathing, but sometimes he would groan into the phone.

Now she was scared. Her dad got involved. The police got involved. Even her boyfriend got involved—I believe he threatened to kill whoever was stalking his girlfriend.

One spring night, Kim awoke in the middle of the night. She said she didn't know why, or what woke her up. But she had the strong feeling something was wrong. She opened her eyes and looked down her bed, to the vanity mirror across the room. She saw the reflection of a man in the mirror, just outside her window. He was less than two feet from her head, separated from her only by a pane of glass. Watching her sleep.

Kim screamed, and he ran.

Later, the police found a footpath to her window, leading out from the trees on her property. It was well-worn.

The next day, her dad installed a motion-detector outside her window that triggered security lights and an alarm. But still, she couldn't sleep with her back to the window anymore. She had to move her bed. Nights, in fact, were terrifying for months afterward, as she watched the darkness outside her window for the flare of light that would mean he was back and had tripped the security lights.

Going to college was a relief for Kim, because it was over. They never found out who it was, and once she moved away, it all stopped. No more phone calls, no more weird feelings, no more stalking.

Erica Orloff recently asked what episode from real life we've used in a story. I used this one in a middle-grade horror-lite story. And you know what? Every kid who read the manuscript made a point to mention that this scene in particular was terrifying.

As for Kim? She didn't end up marrying that guy after all, but by the time she was on the market, I was off it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Through the Ice

I remember the morning I showed up in English class and found our teacher crying. Ms. Tyman was my favorite teacher by far—I took an independent study writing class with her and we did nothing that semester but huddle around a table in the library and talk fiction. She showed me her poems, and she read my awful high-school writing as if it deserved serious consideration. She was unsparing in her criticism, but also in her praise. So finding her sitting at her desk sobbing sent the class into a stunned silence.

"Rob Kornwise died," she said. "In a car accident."

It took me a minute to understand what she was even saying. Rob sat next to me, and Rob and I weren't really friends, but we shared one thing in common: we both wrote. I'd read his stuff, and I was impressed. In another life, Rob and I might have been friends. We should have been friends.

As best I can remember, the accident happened during a concert. Rob was in a car full of kids, waiting in a line. Another car tried to cut into the line and rear-ended Rob's car. He was tall, so his head stuck up above the seat-rest. His neck broke and he died instantly.

When a high school student dies like that, the whole school stops. Life seems to stop and mortality makes an unwelcome appearance in the grim halls. For a while at least, all the normal activities are suspended and there is a palpable, dull sheen over everything. I remember seeing girls crying in the hallway.

I didn't go to the funeral. I felt like I hadn't really earned it, because Rob and I weren't very close after all. I was afraid I had no right to show up. But I wrote his parents a letter. "You don't know me," I wrote. "You've probably never heard my name, and I'm just one of the kids who drifted in and out of Rob's life. But I wanted to say that Rob meant something to me. He was a writer. I'm a writer. He was so good, and I'm so sorry for your loss. I would have loved to see what Rob could have written."

Of course, I knew from class what Rob was writing. He was working on a fantasy novel. It was patterned after his favorite author, Piers Anthony, and Rob was serious about publication. When he died, his book was halfway done. In one of those remarkable stories, his friends sent the manuscript to Anthony with a short note about what happened and how Rob loved Anthony's books. Piers Anthony read it. And liked it. And finished it based on Rob's notes. You can order the book on Amazon. It's called Through the Ice, and Rob Kornwise is given co-author credit with Anthony.

I've thought about Rob a lot over the years, with a mixture of sadness, inspiration and regret. I never mailed the letter I wrote to his parents. No one ever knew how much Rob's death shook me—because I didn't tell anybody, and because I didn't really understand it myself. I spent most of those years skipping school and flunking tests, frequently face down, obsessed with my girlfriend, and dreaming of running away. But Rob wasn't running away—he was running toward. Rob had already identified what he wanted in a way that I hadn't and couldn't at that age. He had already engaged in a process that I didn't even know existed.

Ms. Tyman pulled me aside after Rob's death. She was perhaps the only other person who knew that Rob and I had formed this tenuous, classroom connection as writers. She had seen it, and she had nurtured it. She made us writing partners and encouraged us to share our work. I think now that Ms. Tyman hoped Rob had something to teach me—and I can only hope that she also thought I had something to teach Rob. Ms. Tyman had almost made a career out of trying to reach me.

"Are you OK?" she said.

I nodded because there was no way I could tell the truth.