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Cronin the Barbarian, Usurper of Titus Groan

I know, so many of you, as usual, are wondering what the hell I’m talking about. I’m not quite sure myself. All I know my friend Mike since sixth grade (*waves* Hey Mike!) was gracious enough to send me his copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Mmm. That sounds good. I'll have that.

Suddenly my doorstop of the Gormenghast novels was on the floor next to my bed amid the dog hair and dirty socks.

It was like I had been dating this nice, but weird girl that I wasn’t even really sure I liked and then the girl I had a crush on for the last year not only noticed me, but asked me out. Hello The Passage. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even bother changing my Currently Reading widget in the sidebar.

I wasted little time tearing through Cronin’s first foray into speculative fiction. Six days later I emerged.

Cronin’s writing reminded me of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy mostly. For me, that was a good thing as I find both of those writers eminently readable as well as engrossing. The first 200 pages turned everything up to 11, bringing on viruses, experimental human subjects, prostitutes, punk frat boys, otherworldly children, nuns. The only thing missing was a Federal agent who was too good at his job. No wait, there was that too.

And then Cronin hit me in the face with a frying pan, forcing me to regroup. I was a little resentful, but eventually fell into the story that picked up almost 100 years after the events from the first part of the book. I read one review that essentially called those 200 pages a prologue.  Ah.

Once it got rolling again, I could not put it down. I’ve read a review that called the middle section baggy (to be fair, the reviewer loved the book). While I don’t disagree, it didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t want to leave the story. Fortunately, The Passage is the first of a planned three post-apocalyptic vampire novels. I’m in.

Now normally I don’t go for vampires. Twilight sort of reaffirmed my stance, but I’ve never gravitated toward the vampire story, except maybe the whole Vlad Tepes thing behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But this Justin Cronin guy, he does it all up right. There’s no sparkling, no suave Tom Cruise guy. This is more Nosferatu meets 28 Days Later: Creepy ass, fast moving, and brutal creatures.

But The Passage is more than gore and horror. Cronin sucks you in deep with his characters. And for me, I very much enjoy the Iowa Writers’ Workshop sheen to it all:

Amy’s father was a man who came in one day to the restaurant where Jeanette had waited tables since she turned sixteen, a diner that everyone called the Box, because it looked like one: like a big chrome shoe-box sitting off the county road, backed by fields of corn and beans, nothing else around for miles except a self-serve car wash, the kind where you had to put coins into the machine and do all the work yourself. The man, whose name was Bill Reynolds, sold combines and harvesters, big things like that, and he was a sweet talker who told Jeanette as she poured his coffee and then later, again and again, how pretty she was, how he liked her coal-black hair and hazel eyes and slender wrists, said it all in a way that sounded like he meant it, not the way boys in school had, as if the words were just something that needed to get said along the way to her letting them do as they liked. He had a big car, a new Pontiac, with a dashboard that glowed like a spaceship and leather seats creamy as butter. She could have loved that man, she thought, really and truly loved him. But he stayed in town only a few days, and then went on his way.

There Cronin’s just getting started, but you get the idea.

There’s been much made of the quality of Science Fiction and Fantasy, most of it pointing to the substandard presentation of story in exchange for cool space ships or monsters or worlds. Those who read those genres widely are well aware that there is plenty of what writers and publishers would call “literary” speculative fiction.

I thank Justin Cronin for listening to his then-8-year-old daughter’s suggestion that he write a book about a little girl who saves the world. And for not being afraid to utilize old vampire and dystopian post-apocalyptic tropes. You just don’t mind going over the well-worn ground because, after all is said and done, his writing carries the day.