Ooh, exciting . . .
Posts tagged ‘Vampires’
I’m always a little uncertain as to whether repurposing print reviews as blog posts really works, but I’m going to make an exception for my review of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which appeared in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald.
As books go it’s a pretty improbable one: the first part of a massive, millennia-spanning vampire saga, moving from America a few years from now to a distant future in which the vampire menace has (or just possibly has not) been defeated, with extended detours to a vampire-ravaged future that’s equal parts The Road and The Stand (what is it with these big books and the definite article?).
But despite a few wobbles and some fairly heavy-handed pump-priming here and there, it’s also one of the most entertaining things I’ve read in a while. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it’s one of those “event” books that actually lies up to its hype, and well worth checking out.
If you’d like to know more you can visit the book’s website. Alternatively you might want to check out my piece, ‘Bloody Beauties: The Rise and Rise of Vampire Lit’, which appeared in The Australian Literary Review last year. And my review of The Passage is below:
A while back I was asked on radio when I thought the vampire sensation would burn itself out. I laughed, and said I thought it must surely be past its peak if we were talking about it on Radio National. After all, there’s nothing more fatal to anything with even a whiff of cool than being embraced by the mainstream.
A little less than a year later and it seems I couldn’t have been more wrong. Post the near-universal “meh” that greeted Stephanie Meyer’s companion novella, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, the Twilight phenomenon may have degenerated into women’s magazine fantasies about Rob and Kirsten’s romantic entanglements, but elsewhere the undead are doing very nicely, thank you. On television True Blood’s third season premiered to ratings not seen on cable since The Sopranos, and while critical acclaim has eluded them, there are a host of True Blood/Twilight knockoffs in production. Likewise Dead in the Family, the most recent installment in The Southern Vampire Mysteries series that inspired True Blood sits at the top of the bestseller lists around the world.
And if they weren’t enough, now there’s Justin Cronin’s mammoth summer blockbuster, The Passage, the first part in a projected trilogy that was reportedly bought for a staggering US$3.75 million by Random House and is already being developed into a movie by Ridley Scott and his Gladiator co-writer, John Logan.
Not bad, especially for a man whose previous books, a critically-acclaimed novel and award-winning book of short stories were the sort of minutely-observed tales of quiet intensity set in Maine fishing camps that usually set an author up for a life of quiet obscurity teaching creative writing in a minor American university.
Like Stephen King’s The Stand, to which Cronin’s novel owes more than a little, The Passage inverts the usual notion of the vampire as something dreadful on the fringes of perception, and imagines a future where vampires rule. In King’s novel it is a bioweapon that causes the plague that writes humanity’s death warrant; in The Passage it’s a scientific project hoping to use a virus to cure disease and prolong life.
Thankfully, given its sheer size, the novel is broken up into twelve sections of varying length. The first few, which take place in America a little less than a decade from now, depict the events leading up to the release of the virus.
These first sections are undeniably creepy, conjuring a growing and almost palpable sense of unease as its elements are lined up: the doomed expedition to the jungle to recover the virus, the secretive project to develop a usable form, the group of death row inmates assembled to serve as subjects, the young girl co-opted by the program, the stirring darkness of the first, and most powerful of the subjects, Patient Zero, and his psychic subjugation of one of the reformed sex offenders recruited to work as attendants in the program.
Ironically, much of what makes these sections so unsettling is the way they embed the story in a larger, and more unsettling reality. Unlike the sections after the Fall, they inhabit a world on the fringes of contemporary society, a place where children are abused, and there is more than enough human evil and alienation without going looking for evil of a more supernatural bent.
These early sections might make a powerful novel in their own right, in particular the latter parts, after the virus is released, and Wolgast, the FBI Agent formerly charged with recruiting subjects for the program escapes with the girl, Amy, to the mountains to try and wait out the destruction in the cities and towns.
The narrative then jumps almost a hundred years into the future. The old world is gone, replaced by a barren, silent planet where isolated communities eke out a diminished existence behind high walls and powerful lights, trying and often failing to stay one step ahead of the Virals outside.
For those born into these societies, there is little to look forward to. Those who tend the machines know the end is coming when the last power runs out, and the Virals invade. But that changes when Amy, aged by only a few years despite the passage of more than nine decades, walks unarmed into one colony, and leads a small group of young men and women to set out to set off across a now-ruined landscape in search of a way of breaking the virals’ stranglehold on the Earth.
If much of the above sounds familiar it should, for in a very real sense The Passage is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a book, assembled from offcuts from sources ranging from The Stand to The X-Files, The Road and Dracula (to which it owes not just its vampires, or its use of documents such as diaries and emails to tell its story, but also its fascination with the tension between ancient, atavistic evil and modernity). Even the Virals themselves, with their rows of teeth, hypertrophic musculature and loping, apelike gait are a direct appropriation of Spiderman’s nemesis, Venom.
This sort of cannibalization has been part of the vampire tradition for almost as long as it has existed, each new entrant incorporating elements of its predecessors. Occasionally that process is intertextual, as in Elizabeth Kostova’s grinding pastiche of Dracula, The Historian, but more often these days it is ironic, the mythology internalized and deployed to comic or other effect, as it is when characters in films such as Fright Night or the more recent Lesbian Vampire Killers draw upon knowledge gleaned from movies to defeat vampires in “real” life.
Sadly this sense of play is seldom evident in The Passage. But in a way that hardly matters. For while Cronin’s control of his narrative occasionally falters, and there are moments where the writing strains towards a lyricism it cannot sustain, the book as a whole is never less than disgracefully, compulsively enjoyable. Indeed so addictive is its allure that my chief reaction, even after almost 800 close-set pages, was disappointment that the sequel is not already available.
Reproduced with the permission of The Sydney Morning Herald.
I didn’t get a chance to post at the time because I was away (which is also the explanation for my extended silence) but for those who are interested the new issue of The Australian Literary Review was published last Wednesday. As usual some of the highlights are available online, but given the discussion on this site a few weeks back about good and bad reviewing I’d particularly recommend Delia Falconer’s searching review of Jeff Sparrow’s new book, Killing: Misadventures in Violence, a piece which provides an extremely lucid example of the capacity of really good criticism to be both highly critical and highly engaged. I’m not sure it’s exactly the review Jeff would have wanted, but as a reader it makes me even more curious to read the book (anyone interested in another perspective might want to check out this interview with Jeff, or buy a copy from Readings).
Other highlights include Ronald A. Sharp’s essay about Alex Miller, the always-interesting George Megalogenis on The Slap, and Geordie Williamson’s thoughts about the ereader and its implications for literary culture.
The issue also contains my piece about vampires and vampire literature, a piece which grew out of a post I made months back about the discovery of a “vampire” in a mass grave in Venice earlier this year. I’ll let you read the piece for yourselves, but I will say it was one of those pieces where I went in with one view about the subject under discussion and came out with another entirely.
And, for anyone looking for yet more reading, I’d very much recommending checking out The Group. The brainchild of Larry Buttrose, The Group is a new online magazine which brings together the best writing from around the world. Curated by Larry, John Birmingham, Mark Mordue, Billy Marshall Stoneking and myself, each of its monthly issues will feature a different guest editor, and will reflect their interests and ideas. Issue 1 is out now; you can subscribe via RSS or you can join on Facebook, which will allow you to receive information about upcoming issues etc.
I was reminded last night of one of the more repulsive bits of cryptozoological folklore, the Rat-King. And since the two people I was with had never heard of them, I thought I might share the concept with the world. A Rat-King is created when a rat nest (a horrible concept all on its own) becomes so crowded that the tails of the rats become physically entangled, and slowly but surely, the separate rats begin to fuse into a single organism.
Perhaps not surprisingly the concept of the Rat-King is regarded with some scepticism by contemporary science, but belief in their existence has persisted in European countries, and particularly Germany, since the Middle Ages, and over the years various specimens have been displayed in museums and private collections.
Of these the most famous is probably the one owned by the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, which is comprised of the mummified remains of 32 rats, and was reportedly found in a miller’s fireplace in Buchheim in 1828, although specimens from as far afield as Java and New Zealand have also been collected through the years (Wikipedia has a brief survey of the various extant specimens, and you can see images, including x-ray images of one of the Dutch specimens on the Museum Kennis website).
As someone who’s not keen on rats at all, the Rat-King is a thing of nightmares. But I’m not sure you’d need to be as phobic about rats as I am to feel there’s something deeply unsettling about the whole idea, and not just because the thought of all those rats, scrabbling and hissing and seething together is inherently repulsive. Rather I suspect that just as the idea of zombies, and vampires, and the living dead break down the ontological categories which order our world, the idea of several creatures merging into one super-organism, something smarter and more malign than any of its individual constituents, so offends our most primal suppositions about individual identity that we have few reactions open to us beyond fear, and disgust.
Friday’s New Scientist has a tantalizing little item about the supposed discovery of the skeleton of a “vampire” in Venice. The body, which was discovered during the excavation of mass graves dating from the plague of 1576 on the island of Lazaretto Nuovo, was found buried with a brick forced into its open mouth, as the rather unsettling image to the right depicts.
Sadly I don’t have a decent cultural history of vampires to hand (though if you’re after one, Amazon is up to their eyeballs (or is that eye teeth?) in them) but it’s difficult not to be struck by the manner in which the vampire myth continues to infect our culture. Quite aside from the not-insubstantial literature of the gothic underground, the past few years have seen at least two television series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood), the Twilight phenomenon and a slew of novels ranging from J.R. Ward’s erotic Black Dagger Brotherhood series to Peter Watts’ hard-edged (and all the more terrifying for it) neurobiological take on the vampire myth in the Hugo Award-nominated Blindsight (if you’re interested in taking a look, Watts has published the novel online under a Creative Commons license — I particularly recommend his ‘Brief Primer on Vampire Biology’ if you want to see someone take a serious stab at making the myth make scientific sense).
The reasons for this are complex, but I suspect they’re also oddly basic. The vampire myth, whether in its contemporary, Western form or its various variants and precursors draws together the two deepest elements of the human psyche, sex and death, and binds them together (indeed in a very real sense it is the distorted mirror image of that other great ritual of blood and death and the acceptance of another’s flesh into one’s own body, the Christian communion). It’s a potent brew, so potent, in fact, that in some very real sense the vampire is a kind of universal signifier, able to accommodate almost any anxiety about sex or death, from Dracula’s fin de siecle anxieties about sexuality and moral decline, to anxieties about homosexuality, and blood, and disease, to the images of a death-obsessed Old World which drive Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe. It can also, in the manner of these things, become so overdetermined as to signify not much at all, as the oddly engaging but essentially silly True Blood demonstrates.
All the same, it’s chastening to be reminded of the extent to which, even now, in a world transformed by technology, we are still creatures of our biology, driven by the primitive urges of fear and desire, and haunted by nightmares that, for all that their digital sophistication, are essentially the same as the fears that drove the plague-battered people of Venice to bury a woman with a brick rammed in her mouth four and a half centuries ago.