She wasn’t saying it to be mean or anything, Justin Cronin’s daughter Iris assured him, but it was time to face facts: Those earnest literary novels he was writing were boring, no matter how many prizes they were winning. He needed to jazz things up.
“She was a little worried about me,” Cronin recalls. “I said, ‘OK, what you want me to write about?’ ‘Vampires,’ she said. And now here we are. I’ve essentially written 2,000 pages on a dare from an 8-year-old.”
A pretty good dare to take, as it turns out. Cronin’s vampire-apocalypse trilogy that began with The Passage and The Twelve (with the final book, The City of Mirrors, expected in 2014) has already earned him something north of $5.5 million in royalties and movie-rights sales. Critics love them. Fans are nuts for them.
Even Stephen King, whose last foray into commentary on fangbanger lit was an acid observation that Twilight author Stephanie Meyer “can’t write worth a damn,” was smitten. “You put the scare back in vampires, buddy!” he applauded during a phone call to Good Morning America, where Cronin was being interviewed.
Iris, now 15, got the peace of mind that comes with knowing your dad won’t have to live under a bridge. Oh, and also a pony. But she and her brother Atticus, 9, remain severe critics. “My kids still don’t care that I’m a writer,” Cronin sighs.
Or, as his Twitter account bio calls him, “author of long books in which many people die.” The narrative that stretches through The Passage and The Twelve starts in the not-terribly-distant future, where a military-scientific expedition deep into the Bolivian jungle encounters a voracious flock of bats carrying a deadly virus that gives its victims herculean strength and an unquenchable thirst for blood. Hints in the text suggest that the book ends a thousand years later, with a rebuilt civilization trying to figure out what happened.
In between, the plague victims run amok, sleeping by day and ravaging the tattered remnants of humanity by night. They can be killed only by a bullet or stake through the thymus, an organ not far from the heart. In short, they sure sound like vampires, but oddly the V-word never appears.
In part that’s because Cronin doesn’t really consider his books vampire novels. When he wrote them, he was thinking not of Dracula or Salem’s Lot but the paranoid Cold War novels of the 1950s in which warfare reduced the Earth to a barely populated ash heap.
“I grew up during the Cold War, and I read all the classics of Cold War fiction,” says Cronin, 50. “The genre that drew me in most was apocalyptic fiction — not only nuclear war but biological war, especially some kind of creation story. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. And I was a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes movies, even the later ones that all looked like they were shot on a parking ramp.
“I was fairly convinced that before I reached the age of majority, I would probably be incinerated in a nuclear blast. It was a kind of psychological balm, I guess, but it turned into a lasting interest of mine.”
And midway through The Passage, as the bedraggled band of survivors at the center of his story encountered a colony of vampire collaborators, Cronin realized he was unconsciously being influenced by another source: George Orwell’s 1984, the subject of Cronin’s college thesis.
Cronin, who didn’t read 1984 until he was in college, long past the era of Soviet Stalinism that Orwell hoped to expose, didn’t see the novel in ideological terms. “I was fascinated by it as a rich novel of human character, as opposed to the pure allegory that its reputation suggests,” he says. “It’s a book about how you engage the complicity of good people in an evil regime. . . . How do you get ordinary people to come over to the dark side?”
The parallels with 1984 become even more explicit in The Twelve, much of which takes place in a human colony in Iowa governed by vampire puppets who bombard their subjects constantly with patriotic slogans and anthems, much as Big Brother does in 1984. “I hadn’t planned it to be the inspiration, but part way through, I realized that’s why I was writing what I was writing,” he says.
That zig-zag path between political science and pulp winds throughout both books. Cronin’s survivors move between three territories — a tiny, besieged cooperative, socialist in practice if not in name; a larger confederation of settlements where the economy is based on markets and money; and the vampire-quisling empire as the Homeland, which most resembles a plantation of masters and slaves.
“These societies have all sprouted and grown up independently, like the city-states of ancient Greece,” says Cronin. “They all have their own lexicons, their own economies. They are all different responses, for good or for ill, to this dangerous world in which small bands of people will live for generations.” Or another thousand pages, anyway.