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What to Read Next (No. 186): vampiric
Just last night, I returned home from Fort Wayne, IN, where I was spending a few days doing some training for my new job. For me, work travel has always correlated to good escape reading at night (and on the airplane). This time around, that’s been Justin Cronin’s vampiric tale, The Passage. I read this book a decade ago when it came out, and sort of forgot that it was the first of a trilogy. So I didn’t keep up with the subsequent books. But after getting into Rabid in the last month (also featured this week), I was reminded again how great of a book it was, and decided to do the whole series from start to finish.
Let’s jump right in, and don’t forget to let me know what you’re reading! I always love to hear.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Published: 2010 | Pages: 785
As many novels in the creature-disaster/thriller genre start out, the vampires in The Passage were part of a secret military experiment gone horribly wrong. These aren’t your average Bela Lugosi-like vampires though. These things have gone through a viral transformation—they’re strong, have a tough-as-nails skin/exterior, move extraordinarily quickly, hang upside down like bats, can rip a person apart in the blink of an eye, and are just generally terrifying. The only thing that keeps them at bay? Light. Survival, then, depends on electricity and/or having a good hiding spot come nighttime.
Throughout this long novel, Cronin paints a portrait on a continent gone mad (we only know for sure that North America has been affected). I’ll get to the main narrative here in a sec, but peppered between conventional chapters are snippets of newspapers, journals, emails, and other documents that give a realistic tone to what’s happening. Very World War Z in that sense.
But Cronin goes further than that in giving us character-heavy plotlines where the vampires are indeed there, but more at the edges of the story. It’s more about: How do people survive? What are the forces that make up a successful community? How is the new world different? There’s a small town story vibe for long chunks, which in this case, for some reason, reminded me of Lois Lowry’s The Giver series. In those books, the characters drive the story and the apocalypse is sort of mysteriously in the background.
Taking us from the experimental pre-vamp years through the first century afterwards, Cronin often meanders, but I couldn’t help flipping the pages. Rebellious FBI Agent Brad Wolgast, unknowable Amy Harper Bellafonte, stronger-than-he-realizes Peter Jaxon—the details of the characters don’t honestly matter for the purposes of this review, other than to say that you’ll really come to love and root for them. (Here’s a sign of some great characters: I was able to remember last names without referring back to the book itself.)
The real strength of the book, though, is its literary quality. This is not your average vampire thriller. Get Dracula and Twilight and Buffy out of your head; like Colson Whitehead did with zombies in Zone One, Cronin does here with The Passage. The prose stands out, the complexity of the story stands out, and the depth of feeling stands out.
Not your average vampire thriller, in the best way possible.
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
Published: 2012 | Pages: 290
“On entering a living thing, it eschews the bloodstream, the default route of nearly all viruses but a path heavily guarded by immuno-protective sentries. Instead, like almost no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one to two centimeters per day (on average) through the axoplasm, the transmission lines that conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain.”
I don’t know why it took a book about rabies for me to have my first successful audiobook experience, but here we are. I first heard about this book in my interview with Paul Tremblay, who read it while doing some research for his amazing Survivor Song. Since then, I’ve heard it referenced a number of times as one of the better science books to come out in recent years.
I have to agree.
I was hooked almost immediately and my interest never flagged. From the disease’s mysterious origins and horrific early treatments, to modern day epidemics and surprisingly promising new treatments, the epidemiology is covered in masterful, digestible detail. It takes a lot of talent to put medical language into readable (listenable?) prose, but Wasik and Murphy did so superbly in this book. There were never moments where it felt like the information was over my head, which is rare with a science book—I’m pretty used to just skimming over details!
What rabies does to the body is also extensively covered. The biting and foaming at the mouth is obviously what’s most visible, but the virus does far more than that. Hydrophobia is perhaps the most bizarre symptom—and one that I thought was actually just sort of an urban legend but is terrifyingly real. Deeper though, into the very stem of the brain, is where the real damage happens. From dogs, to bats, to humans, the process is functionally the same. And there is no going back once the virus reaches its destination after its slow crawl upwards (it can take weeks for the disease to manifest, especially if you’ve been bitten in the lower part of body).
The most interesting parts for me, though, were when the authors dug into the cultural history of rabies. There’s more fear and more myth-making with rabies than any other disease—why is that? How has rabies impacted the human relationship with man’s best friend? Best of all, given my own interests, how did rabies give birth to vampires and werewolfs and even zombies in pop culture? (See why I got into The Passage?) The biting and raging of those creatures comes from this very real disease.
Rabid was always interesting and the narrator was just right for the topic. Highly recommended.
Thanks so much for reading and for your support!