Archives for posts with tag: I Am Legend

The PassageI tend to avoid reading books that are part of a series. Series create problems. You might be disappointed in future instalments, there’s the distinct possibility there won’t be a finite ending and you’re often left waiting forever for the next book. In the case of The Passage the arrival of Justin Cronin’s next instalment, The Twelve, was enough to convince me that now might be the time to break my rule. There’s just enough closure in The Passage to help me cope with the fact that it’s a trilogy but there are just as many questions left unanswered.

The Passage opens about ten years in the future. The United States’ war in the Middle East has continued for fifteen years, Hurricane Vanessa completely destroyed New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. is more militarised, but the world is largely the same. The military have begun a top-secret experiment called ‘Project Noah’ using death row criminals as test subjects, bringing together a disparate group of people including FBI Agent Brad Wolgast, a six year old girl named Amy, a nun from Sierra Leone, and death row inmate Anthony Carter. ‘Project Noah’ turns the inmates into what future generations will term ‘virals’, essentially vampires. These vampiric traits spread like a virus resulting in a pandemic that wipes out most of the United States’ population, and possibly the worlds’. Cronin spends time sharing the back story of these characters, encouraging us get to know them. Then, less than a third in, the story leaps ahead almost one hundred years into a post-apocalyptic world. This change is jarring but allows Cronin to explore how society reorganises itself after a catastrophe, widening his scope to take in cults, religion, and government instead of simply becoming the vampire equivalent of a slasher film.

The concept of vampires as mindless creatures created by a virus becoming the majority species, instead of single beings skulking in the dark, has been imagined before (Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend) but that was a spare, haunting, one man against the world scenario. The Passage is tremendous, epic in its reach. Cronin has taken traditional vampire qualities, their penchant for mind control and their seductive powers, and amped them up, using the relationship between a queen bee and her workers as his template. Cronin also inserts the welcome addition of an almost American road trip-style quest to his tale of vampires, with a large portion of the novel devoted to an intrepid group travelling across the country in search of fellow survivors.

Characters are not The Passage’s strength. There’s the stoic, troubled law enforcement guy, the tough girl, the caring young nurse, the guy who doesn’t think he’s a leader but deep down he is, the nerdy guy. That being said, they’re solid examples of the established archetypes and do their bit to add some emotion to the real strength, the story. Vampires are well-trodden territory and while Cronin doesn’t completely reinvent (I got a slight sense of déjà vu reading The Passage at times) he really knows how to write vividly. His action sequences, in particular, are fervent and heart-pounding, and the air of portent and mystery surrounding Amy’s destiny and the virals’ hidden agenda kept me captivated. The Passage is an exciting page-turner, the type of escapist fun that transports you to another world.

Apocalypse-themed fiction seems to have grown in popularity in recent years. And everyone seems to be reading it, even people that wouldn’t have touched speculative fiction before. Perhaps with the Mayan-predicted apocalypse upon us we all are concerned that the end really is nigh. The Passage, in particular, is eminently readable, and fairly accessible to people who don’t usually read fantasy, horror or science fiction. However, recently someone who’d just started The Passage asked me if she should keep reading it or whether it was just more vampire attacks, death and destruction. The short answer was yes, it is a post-apocalyptic vampire book after all. There’s also hope and love mixed in, if you’re that way inclined. I, personally, love a good vampire attack so I believe I’ll be reading the next instalment soon.

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I decided I’d read Zone One because the prospect of a well-respected literary author trying their hand at a zombie novel was too tempting to pass up. Plus, I’m anticipating the October return of the heart-poundingly great zombie show The Walking Dead. Zone One is a section of Manhattan that is being prepared for re-habitation after the worst of the zombie plague appears to be over. The novel follows the exploits of a young man nicknamed Mark Spitz, jumping from his present as a sweeper in Zone One, eliminating any leftover skels, to his memories of Last Night (the night the zombie apocalypse began), and his fight to stay alive in between.

Zone One is exceptionally well-written, albeit in a meticulous way. Colson Whitehead’s writing is full of, often poetic, long, winding sentences. Often I found it to be a little too wordy. And Whitehead also has the tendency to cut between the present and the past at a moment’s notice. Reading Zone One definitely required my full attention. If I didn’t focus the words started to wash over me, losing meaning:

Fewer people milled about the tables, there were subdued shrieks at the craps, roulette stands shrouded in plastic, although it should be noted that the slots maintained their standard population of glassy-eyed defectives, the protohumans with their sleepless claws.

Focusing on rebuilding after the zombie threat has lessened is an interesting slant. Yet, despite passages detailing the dead viciously tearing apart the living, the overwhelming impression I got was of politeness. Instead of the bloody battle for survival between zombie and human we have the return of bureaucracy, law and order, regulations, and paperwork. Whitehead has created an interesting, cerebral, philosophical novel that just happens to be about zombies.

Whitehead does include flashbacks to the bloody battle itself but they tended to be contemplative and lacking immediacy. With anything to do with zombies, I want to feel the terror and I didn’t really. Perhaps Whitehead’s style isn’t best suited to zombie/horror/action. Often the action is cut through with musings and minutiae, breaking any tension. But when Whitehead really focuses on action he achieves a chilling vision of fear and urgency; a flashback to a New England farmhouse comes to mind as a perfect example.

Zone One isn’t just contemplation and zombies, it has the bite of satiric humour and wit. There’s the ridiculous new diagnosis, PASD (Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), which seems to encompass all strange behaviour exhibited after the zombie attack, everyone has PASD in some form. The invention of PASD is nothing more than a bid from humanity to gain back control by putting a name to their many problems, in an attempt to civilise a savage situation.

The novel contains many knowing mentions of an invented popular culture. Even in the face of apocalypse memories of TV shows and movies are embedded. They still serve as reference points despite how the world has transformed. Mark Spitz reflects on how pop culture has portrayed apocalypse again and again, and now he is in the unenviable position of being able to see what they got right. A skel reminds Mark of a character named Marge (with a much-imitated hairstyle) from a once-ubiquitous TV show that presented an unrealistic portrait of Manhattan life. There is an unnamed restaurant chain that Mark Spitz ate at with his parents as a child, the walls filled with fake celebrity memorabilia and nostalgia (something reminiscent of a Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood). Our worship of pop culture is mocked as hollow and fake and yet these are the very things we’ll miss after the apocalypse.

Zone One is well-written and intelligent but I can’t escape the feeling that Whitehead is trying too hard to make zombies highbrow. Classics of genre don’t have to try to be ‘literary’ in order to be classics. Something like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (a vampire novel with zombie-like post-apocalyptic features) is undoubtedly a horror novel but despite this it still says something profound about humanity.