The Passage: Dronely the Lonely


The Passage: Dronely the Lonely, a Review


Okay you’ve been warned about THE PASSAGE. So trudge along with me.

ImageThe Passage is a novel written by Justin Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University. Random House published The Passage in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page, a list of acknowledgements. This list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, and Ballatine. In other words, he knows people. In addition, Cronin has written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a great place to network. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls likely agree.

 Here’s an overview of The Passage. As I read the last page, here are my reasons for wanting to throw it against a wall.

Cronin’s The Passage is 766 pages.  The first 208 pages are really, really good, almost brilliant. The novel begins with the plight of a five year-old girl Amy, when Amy’s  friendless single mother abandons her at a convent. We meet a nun named Lacey, a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone.  Hoping to care for Amy and keep her at the convent, Lacey tells little white lies.

Then the narrative changes to first person in emails that detail research that is going on in the Amazon jungle.

They discover a batman statue in the jungle.  I don’t mean the super hero. This thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved. In a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death. One scientist, Lear, is grieving the death of his wife. While in the jungle, several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats. We’re left wondering what secret the scientists discovered before they became bat food.

Now, we’re back at secret research facility. The military, with Lear’s help, experiments on a dozen condemned murderers.

Plagued seeping creeping dreams, the sex-offender personnel record vitals and clean up the guano. The new “bat men” hang upside down in their cells! This part of The Passage rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.

When two FBI agents recruit a death row inmate, Cronin’s skill really shines.

We meet Carter, a bewildered little man on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress. His victim, a housewife, rescued him from under a bridge and gave him work, a home and dignity. Carter, a gentle soul, accepts his fate. Wolfgast, one of the FBI men, grieves the death of his infant daughter. Wolfgast reluctantly recruits Carter. He knows the man is not a killer.  Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best. We see Carter’s enjoyment. He is amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.

When Lear wants to test the serum on a child  Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner attempt to find one who won’t be missed.

That child is Amy. When Lacey takes Amy to the zoo, the little girl makes the TV news. All the animals freak out and try to follow the little girl. Amy explains that “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never revisited. We never find out what about Amy made the animals crazy. The zoo scene happens way before the events that led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that the zoo incident, along with Lacey’s prescience, will be given an explanation. Not.

Wolfgast tries to rescue Amy but trigger-happy government guy Richards stops him. Richards is the poster child for overkill.

The guy kills all the nuns for pete’s sake! At this point, the writing has been so good so far that you forgive the cartoon excess. The best two hundred pages ends with Wolfgast rescuing Amy after she’s been given a giant dose of refined bat juice. Then the convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Lacy wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns. Alive and determined, Lacey finds Amy. We leave Lacey the nun as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) allowing Amy and Wolfgast to get away. The last page of these 208 ends with Amy being alone with no one to protect her.

The rest of the book, all remaining 548  pages, begins almost one hundred years after the virals have pretty much killed the world.

It centers on the “Colony” a small group of survivors located in California. Exposition is in the form of a document presented at a “World Conference” in “1015 av.” Okay, so we know that there’s a world and conferences and that mankind as a global civilization ultimately survives. Now back to the document, a first person account written by Ida, a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. Think The Stand’sMother Abigail.”

Ida makes awful tea and blurts out remarks like she knows what’s going to happen. She doesn’t!

The Colony survives by vigilance and keeping the lights on at night to keep out the virals. The adults protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying. In desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl. After a hundred years, Amy has managed to hit puberty.  She is also mute.

I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story. The novel jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative.

Not one character pops out. Cronin doesn’t give enough weight to any of them to make us care. I kept waiting for the writing to get better, to get anywhere near the caliber of the first section.  There’s a series of forays, attacks, discoveries. We finally learn that all forty something million virals are telepathically connected to one or the other of the original twelve convicts. Like giant bee colonies, each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the originals, then those connected will remember who they are. Then they’ll wait until the sun comes up. These queenless virals will burn. And they fly to that great hive in the sky. Right. 

What really frosts my shorts is that Cronin leaves us hanging. He doesn’t tell us how or when the world is saved.

In fact, the last “document” presented at the “World Conference” reveals the assumed death of one of the major characters. We don’t know for sure. Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment. The next chapter informs us that they were rescued by some fluke. This is lazy writing. Cronin knows better and we the readers deserve better. The ending was very frustrating and I felt had.

Though much of it is engrossing, I can’t recommend The Passage.

I suspect others might disagree, I found much to like and a lot that was frustrating.


Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid. The Bird Box—a review


     ***Some Spoilers***


The Bird Box, a novel by Josh Malerman

Cover of Josh Malerman’s novel, The Bird Box (from Wikipedia)

Through years of reading horror novels like Josh Malerman’s The Bird Box, some images have lingered in the fight-or-flight part of my brain, especially the flight part.  When Stoker’s Count Dracula crawled like an insect up the steep castle wall, the vampire bug image scored high on my scare-o-meter.The thing that Danny Torrance saw in the forbidden room  of The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel creeped me out bigly.  In King’s Salem’s Lot, another Danny (Glick), a vampire boy, floated outside his classmate’s window in the dead of night. After reading that one, I kept the curtains closed after sundown for quite awhile. After reading The Bird Box, I may keep them closed during the day.

It’s all about perspective though.  I discovered scarier kids than vampire Danny when I taught middle school.

In my own book, The Demon Rift, there is plenty of horror and gore, but little in it would make a reader keep the lights on. I focused on characters in a high stakes conflict. My characters were in the dark, but readers knew more. The Bird Box keeps us all guessing.

In The Bird Box, both characters and readers are in the dark—literally. 

The plot is simple: In a post-apocalyptic world, a young woman named Malorie struggles to save herself and her two small children by attempting a perilous river journey. Because seeing anything outdoors is to invite madness and certain death, she and her children wear blindfolds as they make their way.

Five years earlier, almost all of humanity committed suicide.

The reason?  It began when random people saw something. Whatever it was, seeing it meant instant madness and using whatever means of self–destruction was handy. There were no police sketches of these lethal visitors and no selfies with aliens. Instead, there were deadly snapchats. You snapped and then destroyed yourselfWhat was random, spread quickly. Now, few people are left.  Unlike the thing that haunted Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, in The Bird Box, these creatures don’t walk alone; they’re downright social.

In his novel, The Bird Box, Malerman renders the beginning of the invasion in broad strokes.

The vagueness of the threat, the inexplicable nature of it, makes short work of the bewildered human race. Leave the house without a blindfold and something’s likely to greet you. Hear a noise outside? Don’t pull the curtains to sneak a peak. They consider uncovered windows an invitation. The consequences of seeing these creatures are not limited to humans; animals often suffer the same fate, though some are less vulnerable. Birds demonstrate the strongest resistance.

Behind the house, near the well, Malorie keeps a cage full of birds, “The Bird Box.”  Their agitation can signal trouble.

During the torturous river trip, Malorie depends on her children’s acute hearing, as blindfolded, she tries to stay alert. Watching from the riverbanks, dangerous  animals stalk them. And something on the river is following their little boat.

Thoughts dance in and out of her mind as she rows, revealing fragments of her shattered life.  

She remembers leaving the house behind. She thinks of her younger sister, an early victim of the invaders. We learn that casual sex caused Malorie’s unplanned pregnancy. She recalls the people who took her in and  saved her life by allowing her to stay with them. We’re told little about her rescuers. Age, physical characteristics and a barely sketched history introduce them all. None are really defined by who they were before the disaster.

More important, is who these people became when the unthinkable happened and necessity made heroes of ordinary people.

On occasion, The Bird Box narrative shifts to the struggle of the others who had lived with her in the house. Their blindfolds secured, members of the group felt their way using broomsticks as they searched for supplies in deserted buildings. Looking for canned goods, their groping hands often found the soft decay of bodies. Still, the group didn’t return until they found what was needed to survive. Day to day existence was bravery of a different sort. Gripping the handle of a water bucket, house resident Felix was terrified by sounds he could not identify as he inched along the path to the well.

Both scenes highlight the will and courage of Malorie’s rescuers. Both scenes are slow-moving nightmares.

In Chapter Seven, Tom, the resident Malorie most trusted and relied upon, tells her of an attempt by one of the group to learn more about the invaders. After detailing the precautions they took, he describes the horror of the resulting suicide. Tom seeks to define the unseen entities and their destruction of humanity. “It’s a consensus now. Something living is doing this to us. , . . Whatever they are—our minds can’t understand them. They’re like infinity . . . too complex for us . . .our minds have ceilings . . .”   Or to quote A Few Good Men and Jack Nicholson “You {we} can’t handle the truth!” The hidden madness of one of the group results in the sabotage of their defenses and the death of all save Malorie and her children.

At last, we learn the shattering details of the day she gave birth, an event that showcases Malorie’s strength as the protagonist of The Bird Box.

She becomes a survivor whose uncompromising control of her four-year old children is her only hope of saving them. Dingy walls, stained with trauma, encompass the bleak world of her children.  Pieces of picture frames form makeshift trails that guide them when, blindfolded, they venture out to fill buckets with well water. Thinking of her children’s future, Malorie despairs. When someone making random calls connects with the house’s landline and leaves a message, she learns of a small but thriving community twenty miles away by river. The river is close, less than a quarter mile from the house. If they can make the trip, she and her children are welcome to join. Malorie remembers a rowboat she had stumbled upon years earlier.

In Chapter Nine, as she rows, she “struggles to put a name to the invaders. . . .

“they are not creatures . . . a garden slug is a creature.  Demon. Devil. Rogue. Maybe they are all these things . . . Do they know what they do?”  Echoing Tom, she concludes: “They are more than monsters, they are infinity.”  In one chilling scene, her son tells her that he can hear something walking on the river. Soon, it’s in the rowboat with her and it’s waiting as it gently tugs the edge of her blindfold.”

Malorie knows she must remove her blindfold in order to choose the right fork of the river and save her children.

Like many children, I feared the dark, often pulling the covers over my head. As I read The Bird Box, I recalled those fears–the times when I shivered beneath the blankets while something in the dark waited patiently.

 In The Bird Box, Malerman never pulls the covers down.

The monster in The Bird Box remains stored in the dark closet of memory, along with other things that go bump in the night. Faceless monsters are the scariest ones–worse than ghosts, even worse than floating, crawling vampires.

Maybe I’ll get a parakeet. Better safe than sorry, at least that’s what my cats tell me.

Note: In September of 2017, a Netflix film version of The Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock as Malorie, will begin production. (per Deadline/Hollywood, Mike Fleming, July 19, 2017– Deadline/Hollywood The Bird Box

David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader


David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader    A Review     ***Spoilers***

Slade House imageI have read three novels written by David Mitchell, including Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks and Slade House. A while back, I posted a review of Cloud Atlas, expressing my frustration with the novel’s lack of cohesiveness. What really connected these different stories and characters of the Cloud Atlas? The implication was that these characters in six different stories were the same souls. Many of the souls we engage in one life, we engage in the next. Mitchell ties them together with chance discoveries and birthmarks.

Despite a hasty explanation in the last few pages, the Cloud Atlas was all sizzle and very little bacon.

The Bone Clocks, his 2014 novel, showcases Mitchell’s prose. It is dazzling shorthand, a clever first person narrative that lets you know right away who these characters are and what’s important to them, but nothing goes deeper and for me, they’re all rather flat. The Bone Clocks begins in the 1980’s and ends in the 2040’s with the last of humanity struggling to survive on a polluted Earth. A runaway teen, Holly Sykes, connects several stories. She’s a bystander in the war between the Horologists and Anchorites.

Horologists are immortal beings who share the minds and memories of human hosts.

Horologists often choose to enter the mind of a dying newborn and they become that child until it’s time for the next host. Any human who is capable of consent must agree to be a host.

Anchorites are humans who practice dark magic in order to continue to exist.

Though, like Horologists they can share space and thoughts within another human, they choose to end human lives to extend their own physical existence. As the novel continues, Holly transitions from bratty teen to mother, then to widow. The last segment shows Holly at the end of her life living on an island, struggling to protect her family from the brute forces that arise when our sick planet can no long sustain life as we know it.

So why am I reviewing Slade House instead of The Bone Clocks?

It’s because Slade House was written for readers like me, rather than for critics and academics. Yes, I know there are plenty of readers who adore Mitchell’s work. I enjoyed reading The Bone Clocks. His clever prose keeps you skipping along, but despite the supernatural battles, there’s little in the way of conflict resolution. What there is doesn’t build satisfactorily. The most invested I became was when Holly’s daughter was missing. I related to Holly’s desperation and fear.

When the little girl turned up after a frantic search, I wondered what purpose did this segment serve.

What more did it tell me about Holly or her situation? Like my response to reading Cloud Atlas, I found it difficult to care; nothing in The Bone Clocks touched me. In order to refresh my memory (sorry, much of that brilliant prose was utterly forgettable) I read several reviews and a synopsis.

Another thing: Mitchell caters to the publishing world with characters like Cavendish (Cloud Atlas) and Hershey (Bone Clocks).

I found the insiders’ quips and snide observations about writers and writing annoying. In a review of The Bone Clocks (THE STAR online, 9/28/14) Priya Kulasgarian writes of the “caustic rendition of the literary scene” and how “high minded” readers would find this “self-indulgent . . . if you’re a little lowbrow like me . . . Crispin’s acidic cynicism is a delight to read.”

Then why did I hate these insider meta-jokes—this ripping away of the “fourth wall?

Maybe my brow is lower than Kulasgarian’s. After reading a number of sophisticated reviews of Mitchell’s work, I am confident in saying my brow is not higher.

I did learn of Mitchell’s plan to connect all of his novels into one humungous work of fiction.

The same characters from one title pop up, however briefly, in subsequent books. I haven’t read all of his books. I’m positive that readers who have read them all are big fans. What matters to me is a story well told, with characters that resonate–a story that I can remember longer than a day.

Nifty prose, innovative structure and grand design are entertaining but beside the point unless I care what happens and why.

In Slade House, Mitchell gives us a short novel (239 pages—The Bone Clocks is 624 pages) with a simple structure of five first person accounts of characters falling victim to a pair of supernatural predators, the Grayer twins. Born in 1899 England, the Grayer twins, Jonah and Norah, are telepathic and determined to live forever, a goal that becomes reachable when they learn the arts of the “Shaded Way.”

As in The Bone Clocks, the Shaded Way involves Horologists (see this post’s second paragraph) and Anchorites.

The twins are antisocial Anchorites. Since Horologists tend to dispose of any soul-sucking Anchorites they encounter, Jonah and Norah hide out in Slade House.  Built in the 1930’s for the purpose of luring and trapping victims, Slade House is a place tucked away in a secluded London alley. Though the house was destroyed when German bombs took it out in WWll, time stopped in the 1930’s when the twins created an “orison,” a place outside of time and space. They want their physical selves preserved. To do that requires lots of tricks and the right kind of nourishment.

The twins must eat a soul every nine years.

Not just any soul—it’s got to be the soul of an “Engifted” (psychic) human. When out of a mist, like Brigadoon, Slade House appears and with their bodies stashed in the orison attic, the twins go grocery shopping every nine years by commandeering the bodies of various humans. Through various maneuvers, the intended victim enters the “lacuna” (the space where Slade House used to be and the site of their power). A variety of illusions take place until the victim eats or drinks the “banjax,” something that loosens the soul from the body. Then dinner is served.

The twins are a nasty pair, making unkind jokes about their victims.

Each victim becomes the first person narrator of his or her demise.

In 1979 it’s awkward and peculiar eleven-year old Nathan, a Valium user and reluctant escort to his mother, a social climber.

Next is the 1989 victim Detective Edmonds, who looks for clues on what happened to Nathan. The seductive widow he encounters is really Norah, and when he climbs the stairs, portraits of prior victims line the walls. He recognizes Nathan and hears the boy whisper that he should look for things in the cracks, things that might be used to beat them. “Too late for you,” the boy tells him, “but pass it on to the next (victim).”

The passage where Edmonds describes seeing his soul has stayed with me:

“It’s almost see-through. Like gel, or egg white, and filled with shiny grains of dust, or galaxies, or… God it’s beautiful. Jesus, it shimmers. It’s alive, it’s mine . . .”

In 1998, the victim is Sally, a college student with a weight problem, a beautiful, supportive but distant sister (Freya) and a romantic nature.

Sally is a member of a paranormal investigations group. Sally is also “Engifted,” a fact that brings her and the group to Slade House. Soon, Jonah and Norah dispatch all of the group but Sally and then impersonate the others while playing cat and mouse games, a way to “season” Sally’s soul for good eating with “a sprinkle of last minute despair.”

As poor Sally tries to figure out what’s going on, she encounters the ghost of Detective Edmonds.

Edmonds gives Sally something he found in the “cracks.” It’s a six-inch needle. As Sally observes her soul being eaten, she warns the twins: “someone’ll stop you one day…”

I would hope so. Is that someone Freya, Sally’s older sister?

It’s 2006 and the loss of her sister Sally haunts Freya, now a New York journalist. She interviews Fred, a witness to the disappearance of Nathan and his mother. Fred describes the history of the Grayer twins and their unsavory magic. Alas, Fred isn’t really Fred and the barkeep isn’t a barkeep.

You guessed it. It’s the Jonah and Norah show.

Soon, Freya finds herself immobilized, her soul emerging as the twins prepare to chow down. Then the needle (found in the cracks) that was shown in Act Four appears again. Sally’s ghost makes good on that promise of “someone” to make the pair pay.

Score one for humanity when Sal plunges it into Jonah’s neck. How’s that for “seasoning,” bitches!

Freya still dies, but her soul remains hers. Not only is Jonah incapacitated, but also dinner plans are cancelled.

The next one is nine years away. What to do?

The answer is nothing until 2015. Dinner-to-be is Iris Marinus-Fenby, an academic specializing in paranormal phenomena. Mitchell fans know that Marinus is a character appearing in numerous Mitchell novels. In The Bone Clocks, Marinus is a Horologist.

Jonah is weak and fading fast; Norah is desperate for a hearty meal to power up the orison, save her brother and herself from certain death.

This time we know something they don’t. Iris seems an easy, juicy target, but things keep going wrong. Norah improvises and all is going well until Iris reveals her true nature. Jonah becomes a pile of ash. Just as Norah begins to die, she spots a pregnant woman and takes up residence within the fetus. Norah vows revenge and we have the setup for another Mitchell soul sucking tale.

I wish Mitchell would give his human characters in The Bone Clocks and Slade House more power.

The conflict was much easier to follow in Slade House because when we listen in on the twins, they spell out who they are and what they want; however, the humans remain clueless. In Dracula, Van Helsing explains the nature of Dracula’s evil. Jonathan knows what he’s up against and chooses to fight.

In the war between the Horologists and Anchorites, we’re collateral damage, seen as pets or a natural resource.

Horologists are the SPCA and the Anchorites are Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mitchell is very good at rendering character types, but for me, with the possible exception of Holly Sykes, there is no soul to eat. Regardless, Slade House was a very good read, easy to follow and understand, though it abruptly ended when it should have been just starting.

Okay, Mr. Mitchell, I’d like some more, please.