Saturday 22 October 2016

Engrossing final instalment in vampire trilogy

Horror: The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin, Orion, pbk, 624 pages, €18.99

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Skilful writer: Justin Cronin is a graduate of the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Skilful writer: Justin Cronin is a graduate of the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop.
The City of Mirrors

Horror novel 'The City of Mirrors' is well on its way to becoming a classic of the genre, writes Ian O'Doherty

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There was a time when the horror genre was a largely male, largely young niche. Sure, there were obvious female exceptions, both as producers and consumers, but the horror world was run by the likes of Stephen king and Dean Koontz.

Horror was the genre that dare not speak its name and made for a cheap and easy target whenever the bullies of literary fiction were looking for someone to beat up.

That kind of deluded, elitist nonsense was perhaps best illustrated by esteemed critic Harold Bloom.

When Stephen King was awarded the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Bloom went on the offensive, hissing: "That the National Book Foundation could believe that there is any literary value in King's body of work, or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence, is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."

Of course, that was back in 2003, in a world before Twilight, The Walking Dead, True Blood and, it sometimes appears, every successful literary or movie or TV franchise that we've seen for the last few years. In fact, horror has become so mainstream it's in danger of becoming respectable, a prospect even more horrible to contemplate than the topics themselves.

I wonder what an inveterate, elitist snob like Bloom - who was really insulting King's readers, not just the man himself - would make of The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin's final instalment of his vampire trilogy, The Passage.

Cronin was a well-regarded graduate of the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop and the author of equally well regarded but little read slices of literary fiction such as Mary And O'Neill.

With an academic career as a Professor of English in Rice University, he seemed destined to lead his life in relative obscurity, until his daughter asked him to tell her a story about a young girl who saves the world.

On such minor topics can masterpieces be created, and while it may be too soon to bestow that level of praise on Cronin's invention, the three books are nearly, nearly up there with bona fide classics of the genre like The Stand.

When we were first introduced to Cronin's universe in The Passage in 2010, an expedition to Bolivia to find the source of a legend about immortality goes hideously wrong.

When some death-row inmates are experimented upon with a new drug based on what was found in the jungle, the infected participants evolve to become 'virals', complete with superhuman levels of strength and a desire for blood. Once they escape, it's game over for humanity as we know it.

Only Amy, an unwanted orphan and disposable test subject, seems to have retained her humanity alongside the extra powers she has received from the treatment (including, apparently, immortality).

End-of-the-world stories are 10 a penny these days, but The Passage, and it's equally successful follow-up, The Twelve, adroitly skip from time frame to time frame and era to era, including fake lecture notes from an academic history set far in the future as a cunning way to provide extra backstory.

Where The Passage dealt with the end of the world as we know it, The Twelve dealt with the one that would come next - the survivors are herded into a vast concentration camp in Iowa and used for both slave labour and food by the viral overlords and their human collaborators.

Fiction evoking both the Holocaust and vampires may be an understandably slight category, but Cronin has a rare capacity for combining meditations on the human soul while also including dramatic set pieces (Ridley Scott has, unsurprisingly, won the rights for the movie adaptation).

The Twelve finished with a final showdown between Amy and the original test subjects and their servants which saw her apparently vanquish, once and for all, the threat.

Life has moved on by the time we get to The City of Mirrors. People who once fought for the survival of humanity are old; the younger generation thinks their parents were exaggerating the threat and as civilisation returns to a level somewhere akin to the early pioneers who settled in the American West, the characters who survived from the last book are now more worried about bureaucracy and planting the crops on time than they are about a return of an apparently extinct viral horde.

Like its two predecessors, The City of Mirrors is a doorstep of a book and, like the two that went before, could have done with a bit of judicious editing.

But when a writer as elegant as Cronin gets moving, you get swept away from the central plot and just enjoy the prose.

There's even a novel within the novel as we finally see the backstory to the original Patient Zero, a professor called Tim Fanning who hates the world.

The fact that he hates, and goes on to destroy, the world simply because of a college relationship which shapes his life and sours his mood is perhaps the most jarring element here. Maybe Cronin is trying to point out that it's the supposedly minor things in life which can change the world, but Fanning's rage is just a sort of apocalyptic peevishness.

Dealing in the kind of epic time frame that brings to mind something like A Canticle for Liebowitz, with frequent biblical allusions and almost imperceptible nods to Cormac McCarthy, The City of Mirrors is a different beast to the abstinence-based nonsense of Twilight or even the sensually drenched Southern Gothic of True Blood.

It is, instead, a remarkable achievement, as engrossing as it beautifully written and while some may quibble with the epilogue, fans who have been waiting years for the conclusion to this story won't be disappointed.

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