Book Brawl: The Strain vs. The Passage

Each month I throw two books, somehow related, into the BOOK BRAWL ring to fight it out for the coveted title of literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves.

This month we’ve got the first titles in two concurrent modern vampire trilogies.  Justin Cronin’s The Passage, meet Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain. Which one sucks? Let’s find out!

Round One: By Any Other Name

The Strain (2009) signifies the vampiric virus spreading rapidly through the country—and, presumably, the strain this takes on society. It’s a solid title, but it doesn’t offer a lot of nuance.

The Passage (2010) refers to the extraordinary journey the characters take throughout this apocalyptic epic, as well as the inexorable passage of time, because the novel spans centuries. The title also implies the passage from this mortal coil to the plane of death (or vampirism). It’s pretty and it packs a punch.

Round One goes to…The Passage!

Round Two: A Book By Its Cover

I don’t actually care for either of these covers, but one is even worse than the other. The Strain cover honestly doesn’t feel like the product of much effort. It looks like an airport book, which it is--which both books are, and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. People on airplanes must read!—but I wish it didn’t look so very airporty.

The Passage cover, on the other hand, resembles nothing so much as a Christian self-help book. The sun-dappled trees breaking through the night sky and shady ground are visually clever, but with the large, cover-encompassing typeface, the entire effect is a bit mawkish. But I do feel, at least, that they tried.

Round Two goes to…The Passage!

Round Three: Does The Premise Have Promise?

The Strain opens with a Boeing 777 landing at JFK airport, when the plane suddenly stops dead in the middle of the tarmac. All the lights are dimmed, the windows shaded, the radio silent. Ephraim Goodweather, head of the CDC biological threat department, is on the case. He is led rapidly down a trail that hints at a monstrous disease, and his investigation pairs him with former professor/pawn shop owner/antique weapons dealer/Holocaust survivor/vampire slayer/all-around badass Abraham Setrakian. As they race against the rapidly spreading vampire strain, they battle the bloodsucking beasts, institutional incredulity at the CDC, and a more insidious threat of conspiracy.

The Passage has no easy summary. The novel begins with the birth of a quiet child named Amy to her transient mother. We learn of a government experiment run by a man named Wolgast, who is responsible for recruiting death row inmates to be inoculated with a mysterious virus meant to transform them into super soldiers. After Amy is left at a convent by her mother, Wolgast, who has gathered the last of the twelve inmates, is ordered to deliver Amy “No Last Name” to the Colorado compound where the inmates are undergoing astonishing changes. The twelve inmates, after fully converting to vampire form, break out and begin spreading their infection to the rest of the world. 93 years later, an isolated colony is struggling to keep the lights on and the vampires out. There, a new battle for the survival of humanity is born.

Round Three…is a draw!

Round Four: A Hero You Can Root For

Ephraim Goodweather is a brilliant scientist and a loving father. His devotion to his very important work ended his marriage, but he is on cordial, considerate terms with his ex-wife. Once he discovers the nature of the disease he is investigating, he does not waste time on skepticism. Eph simply accepts what his research has told him, and takes decisive action to prevent this terrible disease from spreading across the nation. And when it comes time for Eph to put down the microscope and take up the motherloving sword, he isn’t afraid to chop off some vamp heads.

The Passage, due to its vast scope of time and place, does not have one protagonist. Wolgast is a dedicated agent who ultimately honors his own moral code over a superior’s orders. Peter is a brave defender of his colony and loving brother. Amy…well, I can’t talk much about Amy without spoiling this wonderful novel for you, but Amy is truly amazing. Each character is tremendously compelling, and Cronin’s ability to make us care equally about someone new after robbing us of a character to whom we have grown attached is remarkable indeed.

Round Four goes to…The Passage!

Round Five: The Vampires

No one, but no one, can beat Guillermo del Toro for creature design. The man has mastered the art of conceiving stunningly horrific and original monsters for his films, and the vampires in The Strain are no different. These vamps have a “stinger”—a long, retractable proboscis beneath the tongue that can whip out over six feet from the mouth when they are feeding. The stinger both drains the prey’s blood and infects the victim with capillary worms so that they are soon infected with a rapidly spreading and incurable virus. The vampires have smooth, featureless skin; they are pale when they are hungry but tinged red when they have recently fed. They have black eyes surrounded by red, with white membranes that slide across the eyeball. Their body temperature runs at 120 degrees and they emanate heat. The vampires are extremely agile, quick, strong, nearly impervious to everything except sunlight and decapitation. The novel offers far more specific details about the physiology of these creatures, but you get the idea.

The vampires in The Passage resemble Morlocks: light-vulnerable, hairless creatures that move almost like dogs, with “clawlike hands” and “sworded teeth.” They make clicking sounds with their throats to communicate with each other. They can jump over incredible distances; they are nimble and powerful and invulnerable. There are twelve original “virals,” from the twelve original inmates, and they are nearly immortal, creating twelve enormous families of virals with a far reaching hive-mind. The virals in The Passage are extremely cool, but as I said, no one beats del Toro.

Round Five goes to…The Strain!

Round Six: What A Lovely Language

The language in The Strain is utilitarian. It’s serviceable. Guillermo del Toro is a wonderful director and screenwriter, and Chuck Hogan has written many successful novels, but the book lacks poetry.

Half-covered now by the new (and otherwise invisible) moon, the still bright sky began to take on a dusky cast; like a sunset, only without any warming of the light. At ground level, the sunlight appeared pale, as though filtered or diffused. Shadows lost their certainty. The world, it seemed, had been put on a dimmer.

The Passage is beautifully written. Cronin is not a horror writer; he is a writer, with a heart-wrenching grasp on language, and an ability to convey triumph and tragedy with his words--words that transcend the genre.

When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of the earth with his old life locked in its hold; and when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing, and the moon in its arc no longer remembered his name, and all that remained was the great sea of hunger on which he floated forever—still, inside him, in the deepest place, was this: one year. The mountain and the turning seasons, and Amy. Amy and the Year of Zero.

Round Six goes toThe Passage!

And the Book Brawl victor is…The Passage! The crowd goes wild! While I was pleasantly surprised by both vampire novels in this oversaturated market directed at tweens, and while I am a passionate fan of Guillermo del Toro, The Passage offers a profundity, a romance that I generally do not anticipate when reading horror novels. It’s a magnificent book, and I simply cannot wait for the sequel, The Twelve, to be released this year.

What do you guys think? Do you agree with the ruling? And what other books would you like to see duke it out in the ring in the future?

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Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows February 21, 2012 - 11:51am

The right book absolutely won. The Passage is one of my favorite books of recent years and I can't wait for the second book to come out this year. :)

Edward W.'s picture
Edward W. from Michigan is reading For Whom the Bell Tolls February 21, 2012 - 11:54am

Thanks for this. I read the passage last summer on a trip to France. As much as I enjoyed it, I had kind of forgotten about it. Now I'm excited again for the sequel.

Rachel Elizabeth Clayson's picture
Rachel Elizabet... from Reno, NV is reading The Dark Tower (7) February 21, 2012 - 1:18pm

Absolutely agree. Enjoyed both books, but The Passage was one of the best I've read in a while. So excited for The Twelve! 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine February 21, 2012 - 2:27pm

I got a review copy of The Passage and enjoyed reading it, but not enough to shell out for two more. Found the end a tad anticlimactic. Babcock was too easily defeated.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 21, 2012 - 2:54pm

Great stuff. I have both at home, and have yet to crack either spine. But THE PASAGE is the one I most want to read, and it sounds fantastic. Have you read SWAN SONG? That's the vibe I'm getting.

JameseyLefebure's picture
JameseyLefebure from Liverpool, Uk is reading The Gunslinger- Stephen King February 24, 2012 - 4:36am

ooh I'm literally about 130 pages into The Strain now after picking up the comic a few months ago. It's pretty good but i do agree the writing style lacks poetry, but still a good read up to now. I think on payday I'll have to have a look at the passage though - sounds pretty mighty!

rboschman's picture
rboschman April 17, 2012 - 6:23am

I disagree almost completely with this comparison of The Strain and The Passage

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... July 31, 2012 - 2:11pm

When judging prose, subjective taste plays a substantial role. Based solely on the excerpts provided, I would've thought The Strain the better written novel. Though Del Toro/Hogan uses three different comparisons to describe the quality of the moonlight, the quoted paragraph does not seem cluttered by them. It has a nice cadence and syntactic variety and demonstrates a skillful use of punctuation. The writing is straightforward. This is an image clearly communicated. The "only without any warming of the light" bit is a tad clumsy, but the Strain passage is otherwise commendable.

I would've red-penned the heck out of The Passage paragraph. It is overwritten and careless. I wouldn't necessarily call it bad writing, but I would certainly not call it good. What good writer needs so much figurative language to express himself?  There's the man receding like a ship, the "blade of the earth" (whatever that means), a "sea of hunger," and the awkward personification of the world, the stars, and the moon. [I have to ask: has the moon forgotten his own name or the name of the man about whom the paragraph was written?] And the syntax! The whole paragraph reads like a run-on. This isn't always a bad thing, but writing shouldn't weary your reader after three sentences.

Part of writing in any context is communication. I'm not sure what Cronin is trying to communicate. I honestly wondered whether he is an English-speaker. I suppose his prose is poetic if you associate wordiness and obsurity with poetry. Some may at least find his words here beautiful, but those words are just dead trees and wasted ink to me, black spots on my screen. Capote said it best:

That's not writing, that's typing.

Again, subjective taste plays a huge factor. I tend to prefer minimalism, but Meredith may prefer more flowery prose, for example.