At last, the vampire is scary again. In a world riddled with safe, even chaste, vampire stories, author Justin Cronin's The Passage is restoring our fears of bloodsuckers. As a strange virus discovered deep in the jungles of Bolivia spurs a medical experiment with apocalyptic consequences, an ex-federal agent finds himself having to protect six-year-old Amy, who is, unwillingly, the crux of the world's end. Cronin's 750-page epic is part literature, part gripping horror yarn, but most importantly it's a vampire tale that doesn't feel cheap. TIME talked to Cronin about his scope for catastrophe and the staying power of the vampire story.
Right now, vampires are really seen as more of a tween thing. Did that make it harder to write about them?
The idea for The Passage was born in the fall of 2005. I think Twilight was published right around then, and [its popularity] really built over time. It was completely off my radar. It was kind of going on in the peripheral and I thought, "Oh, that's nice. I guess people like vampires still." But I was really writing out of experiences with vampires 30 years ago. I was watching Dark Shadows on TV and reading vampire comic books and seeing the original Dracula. So, honestly, I wasn't giving it a second thought other than "Oh, great. There's still an audience for this stuff."
I keep hearing about how this is so new for you? Is that true?
My other books were in some ways quieter, I suppose, but I was always headed toward something with a big canvas. That's what I really wanted to write, a big canvas story with lots of characters. A story you could lose yourself in. Even when as a kid, I was reading these big, fat summer books fat as a Rueben sandwich. I actually wrote this book on a dare from my daughter. I think every interesting thing a man does in his life, he probably does to impress a girl and in this case, I did it to impress my nine-year-old who dared me to write a book about a girl who saves the world.
But why vampires?
Vampire stories have never really gone away. Everyone grows up with some version of this story because it asks a very resilient human question. You can move the pieces around, but at the core, the vampire story asks what part of your humanity you would be trading away if you lived forever. It's a really reassuring fable about how good it is to be mortal. For that reason I don't think these stories will ever go away.
It's interesting that you bring up the importance of humanity because I notice that even though most of your characters have huge gaping holes in their lives, you still get the feeling that those lives are worth saving.
To write a character well, I always have to know a couple of things. One is that I have to know what they're not telling anybody. What's their secret? Everybody's got one. I need to know about the stone around their neck. And also, what will they do in a moment of great urgency? That's the great test you want to put your characters to. In this book, I wanted to put them to a test of dire urgency all the time. So the question I asked of the characters was, if you're running for your life, what's the one thing you will carry?
These scenes where the characters actually are running for their lives are terrifying. How did you create them?
I grew up with a real imagination for catastrophe. I'm a child of the Cold War. It's just part of my DNA. Even as a kid, I had nightmares of nuclear apocalypse. I read a ton of books that dealt with this subject. I guess you could say that I was darkly fascinated with these things, but of course what I was really looking for was reassurance. That's why we do anything scary.
I have to admit that I gave the book a marathon read over last weekend and had some dark dreams because of it.
I've heard that people who read about this book dream about it, which is interesting. At some point I should sit down and think very carefully about what that means. Of course, every novel is a kind of dream you're asking the reader to have along with you. A book's not an object, it's an event.
What about you? Any dreams while you were writing?
I have a crazy dream life. I'm somebody who was a champion sleepwalker as a kid. I was constantly doing something peculiar in the middle of the night. I remember waking up once to see that I had mangled my desk lamp and I have no idea what it ever did to me. I'd wake up to find myself eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I think writers and artists are all people who have pretty active unconscious minds. I think that's just temperamentally what we are. I think if you got a bunch of writers and painters together in one room, you'd have a room full of people with pretty choppy sleep lives.
This is first of a three-book series. Does this mean there's a happy ending in here somewhere?
I will offer my readers reassurance that it will end, in some way, well. I think any book that contemplates the end of the world, is really contemplating its opposite in a sense. It's asking what will save us or what is savable about us. I think that's why people write these books and I think this is why people read them.
The Passage has really made vampires scary again. How important was that to you?
One of the great things about the vampire tradition is that you make it your own. That's why it's there. Most vampire stories are full of magic, but science has been the magic of my lifetime, so I decided I would ground them in a plausible, medical explanation. These are not your teenage daughter's vampires, that's for sure.