Cover of 'The Twelve' by author Justin Cronin. (Ballantine Books )
Ballantine Books: 592 pp., $28
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.