The Designer’s Drugs: Justin Cronin – The Passage

The Passage

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Justin Cronin – The Passage

Anno: 2010

Like many masterpieces of horror, what makes The Passage one of the finest pieces of vampire literature to come along in a long, long time is that it’s not about the monsters.  So much time is invested into building the pre-bloodsucker world that when the creatures rise up, their presence is both fully formed and yet somewhat secondary.

Though entirely its own story, this first volume in Justin Cronin’s planned vampire trilogy is easily comparable to The Stand, both in plot and scope.  The first act of the tale is set in a United States a few years from now, in a world which has fallen further into the war on terror.  Further acts of mass destruction, committed both inside the country and beyond, have turned America into an ailing police state.  Such a declining state of affairs leads to drastic attempts to reassert American dominance, culminating with a plot to copyright immortality.  You can guess how well that turns out.  A hundred years later, mankind is in its death throes, when a girl from the old world reappears to lead a band of survivors to war.  Their present goal: to travel to ground zero and find the truth about the walking plague.

The main facet of Justin Cronin’s storytelling that sets him apart is his eagerness to infuse his story with consequence.  Too many characters come back when presumed lost, and this does pull the plot into an undue tidiness at times.  That some documents of the times have been preserved as exhibits in a society a thousand years in the future indicates that some form of civilization has survived, which takes away some of the danger.  Then again, Cronin is unafraid to wipe out anyone and everyone, and there’s a lot that could happen in the next millenium.  Despite the hazy future, the suspense in The Passage twists the reader’s expectations right to the very last sentence.

All of which wouldn’t mean a thing if the characters weren’t so well developed.  The people of the old world and the new – both the monsters and their prey – are examined without mercy.  Their flaws are brought into full view, yet at the same time no character, no matter how vile, is without humanity, and one can fully understand where each person is coming from.  The board is black and white, but the pieces are all shades of grey.

The sum total of The Passage is a story that may not reinvent the wheel, but is fully deserving of being called an epic.  If this first offering is any indication of how the rest of Cronin’s trilogy will unfold, this will be the vampire story by which all others will be judged.

The Designer’s Drugs: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan – The Strain

The Strain

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan – The Strain

Anno: 2009

The director behind acclaimed films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy has thrown his hat into the ring of literature. Considering the magnificent visuals and dank atmospheres which permeate his movies, the idea of Guillermo del Toro writing anything at all naturally brings with it high anticipation, but a trilogy of vampire novels seals the deal. The Strain plays the opening notes of this opera, ultimately bringing back the old school monster vampire front and center, sweeping away all the teenage romance that has clogged the genre’s arteries, and then evolving the beast.

The most important word in the previous sentence, however, is ultimately. Despite the promise which this book holds, its opening is very poorly written. This has nothing to do with the story itself, which even in its early stages sweats suspense. The opening act’s glaring fault is in its tendency to overexplain everything, to turn every medical piece of trivia into a lecture. Acronyms are quite glaring, written longform first with the abbreviated form following in parentheses. Having “severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)” or “personal alert safety system (PASS)” in a sentence really busts it up. Yet an even worse offence comes in the description of the solar eclipse which serves as a plot point. The authors spend an entire page describing how its proper term is “occultation,” being that the earth is the object in eclipse. Fair enough, but what becomes ludicrous is that every single person from then on refers to the solar eclipse as an occultation. The authors’ overbearing hits its breaking point here.

Things do catch up, though, and soon The Strain hits a stride on par with the godfather of the leech stories, I Am Legend. Beginning the tale with a landed plane that mysteriously goes dark with everyone inside, The Strain’s authors let the anticipation boil before sending their monsters into the wilds of New York. As the danger grows, a pair of scientists from the Center for Disease Control team up with a ratcatcher and a gnarled old Van Helsing-type to fight back. Like I Am Legend, this story approaches its horrors with eyes of science, incorporating the old superstitions into rational theories – which takes nothing away from these creatures’ ability to terrify.

If the rest of this series is written like the end of its first book, Guillermo del Toro could steer this story into something amazing. It should be taken for granted that he would turn this story into an amazing film.

The Designer’s Drugs: Vienna Teng and Alex Wong – The Moment Always Vanishing

The Moment Always Vanishing

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Vienna Teng and Alex Wong – The Moment Always Vanishing

Anno: 2010

One of the things I like least about live albums is the amount of talking (often preplanned) that often obstructs the music.  Unless the band is Kiss and the speaker is Paul Stanley – whose stage banter is so over the top that bootleggers have constructed entire albums devoted to it – listeners are probably going to hit fast forward and resent the artist.  Anticipating this, Vienna Teng and Alex Wong made a smart decision and placed their many such (seemingly unplanned) conversations on separate tracks, allowing listeners to get right to the action.  And in one of their speaking tracks, the group tries to wail like Paul Stanley, so points there as well.

Accompanied by a cellist in certain tracks, pianist Vienna Teng and multi-instrumentalist Alex Wong play a set of gorgeous melancholy.  The sound quality on these tracks is so great that, were it not for the applause and those bits of conversation, The Moment Always Vanishing could almost pass for a studio album.  Songs like “Antebellum” and “Blue Caravan” are every bit as wrenching as they are in their original forms, while a few songs break with Teng’s established formula and go further.  Showing the range of the performance, “The Last Snowfall” becomes a pristine work of heavy loops and production tricks, whereas “Grandmother Song” turns into a charging blast of bluegrass which gets the audience howling.  The presence of Radiohead’s “Idioteque” at album’s end is a well done bonus.

More live albums should be like this.  The combination of skill and personality shown on The Moment Always Vanishing sets it in a class far above most bands’ stale victory laps.  With Vienna Teng stepping away from music for the time being, this serves as a magnificent stopping point.

The Vienna Teng Trio will play Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival on Sunday, September 5th.  To read my interview with Vienna Teng and Alex Wong, go here.

The Designer’s Drugs: Stewart – Kicks

Kicks

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Stewart – Kicks

Anno: 2010

Stewart sounds the way a commercial designed to sell clothes to teenagers sounds.  Pictures of quirky kids running around a mall in fast-motion rush through my head when listening to “Dance with Me,” “Consider Me Gone,” and “Aloof.”  This girl group doesn’t run exclusively on Veruca Salt rock, but the quiet songs, “Gone” and “Who We Are,” seem out of place.  That’s a shame, because they – and a sped-up redo of the latter song – are the best offerings on the album.

Clocking at less than a half hour, Kicks has little aim beyond being a party album.  While it fulfills that purpose, the undercurrents indicate greater talents than what’s seen on the surface.