No one expected Justin Cronin to sink his teeth into a post-apocalyptic vampire novel. He was an award-winning author of quiet literary fiction when he drafted a story so compelling and frightening that he landed a $3.75-million, three-book deal.
The trilogy began in 2010 with "The Passage," a 784-page runaway bestseller, one of the few books that could boast of billboards on Sunset Boulevard. "The Twelve" is second in the series, but even the most devoted fans may notice a bit of a sophomore slump.
In Cronin's futuristic dystopia, America has been decimated by voracious vampires known as virals. They were born of a scientific experiment using a jungle virus to try to create eternal life — a variation on the hubris-of-man theme that goes back to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."
After the dozen infected monsters break free, they begin chomping away, creating a massive army of virals able to generate more of their own kind. The hordes are absolutely terrifying: They move impossibly fast, are hard to kill, rip human prey into pieces and then feast on the gore with double rows of metal-sharp teeth. The armed forces — which had a hand in their development — are no match for them; in a month, the virals wipe out civilization.
Much of "The Passage" takes place about 100 years later; those left behind at a remote temporary refugee station managed to create a sustainable community. Their descendants have only a rough sense of the world that came before. A group of young people — led by the book's central protagonist, Peter, a good guy who grows into the role of classically conflicted leader — undertakes a dangerous quest to fight the virals.
The end of "The Passage" suggests that the sequel might continue that quest; it's here, but it's a long time coming. In fact, about 200 pages of "The Twelve" pass before Peter reappears. The narrative suffers from his absence, as well as from the lack of mission. The book's title implies that the 12 original vampires — all human test subjects plucked from Death Row (clearly a bad idea) — will be hunted down. Readers bringing that expectation to this book will be disappointed.
Instead, we return to the early days of the infection, as the virals attack and death spreads across the land. In one community, a developmentally disabled school bus driver, not entirely comprehending the outside threat, takes his bus on the road. Along the way he picks up a group of likable survivors: a boy and his 17-year-old sister, a feisty elderly woman, a snotty twentysomething, a soothing older man and a self-appointed sniper, Kittridge.
When the vampire apocalypse begins, Kittridge proves he is savvy, brave and lucky: "On the first night, windless and lit by a waning quarter moon, Kittridge had shot seven: five on the avenue, one on the opposite roof, and one more through the window of a bank at street level. It was the last one that made him famous. The creature, or vampire, or whatever it was — the official term was 'Infected Person' — had looked straight into the lens just before Kittridge put one through the sweet spot. Uploaded to YouTube, the image had traveled around the globe within hours; by morning all the major networks had picked it up." Weeks later, there are no major networks, no YouTube — but Kittridge is still standing.
Less heroic is Horace Guilder, part of a different group of survivors that provides a window into another part of the story.
Guilder is a high-level government functionary, and through his eyes we see how the government reacts as the crisis unfolds. He's unpleasant, a self-interested weasel who spends a lot of time mooning over a prostitute who doesn't love him enough. He has the power to engineer his own escape, but he's not as much fun to follow as the ordinary people on the school bus who are just trying to survive.
There are obvious hazards to creating a three-book series. If the first book is successful, it will create a fascinating world that people want to revisit. The last volume has the built-in tension of the dramatic conclusion. What to do in the second? Cronin fills in some of the past and advances the story a little — he provides a couple of climactic battles he's so good at — but never quite finds a center for this book.
"The Passage" created an addictive world, but in "The Twelve," it's already familiar. What starts to show through, in the slower parts, are weak characterizations. The main figures carried over from the first book, including fierce Alicia, mysterious Amy and tinkerer Michael, are still robust, but others are too often clichés — nuns are stern but secretly kind, for example. Soldiers are always honorable, oilmen are nothing but tough, children universally adorable.
Clichés can be a shorthand way of building story, and on other levels, the book also seems undercooked. There are many lines of dialogue that sound as if they're lifted from somewhere else — a man cries, "Bring me that girl!" In places the prose feels tired, hackneyed: "The day broke fresh and clear. Alicia slipped on her glasses and stretched, the pleasureable energy of a night's rest flowing though her limbs."
One original element that comes alive in "The Twelve" is an idea hinted at in the first volume: that between virals and victims there might be a kind of viral-human hybrid. Cronin explores that in "The Twelve" in a number of intriguing variations. He also raises the prospect of how a predator as successful as the virals might find a way to nurture an ecosystem that could sustain it.
Cronin's trilogy joins a recent spate of literary post-apocalyptic thrillers, including Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (2006) and Colson Whitehead's thoughtful zombie novel "Zone One" (2011). But the contents of Cronin's books owe less to highbrow literary aspiration than to pop-culture phenomena: The series hews closely to Stephen King's "The Stand," in which a few plucky survivors make their way across a devastated landscape. As in the television reboot of "Battlestar Gallactica," a limited number of monsters are bent on destroying the human race — and one heroine is growing unsure of the side to which she belongs.
The rampaging virals of the series are far from the classic vision of the gentleman vampire, or the idea that vampires are sexy beasts as portrayed in "Twilight," "True Blood" and dozens of other vampire books and films. Instead, they are a lot like the zombies of "The Walking Dead": rampaging, soulless killing machines.
"The Twelve" is at its best when it's frightening and disgusting, when there are hardships and risks, and when there is bloody hand-to-claw combat. That doesn't account for quite enough of the novel, however, which simply isn't as propulsive or well-wrought as its predecessor.