The summer sun may be shining, but vampires don't seem to be going anywhere. Charlaine Harris' new Sookie Stackhouse novel — the latest in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series — is topping summer reading lists, and the HBO series True Blood starts its third season on Sunday. NPR 's Margot Adler has read 100 vampire books this year and gives us a heads-up on two bloodsucking books expected to be summer blockbusters.
The Passage by Justin Cronin, hardcover, 784 pages, Ballantine Books, list price: $27
Much of the buzz is about The Passage — a nearly 800-page brick with a blurb from Stephen King. The Passage is not really a vampire novel in the traditional sense, but it's definitely in the blood and horror genre; it's more like Stephen King's The Stand. A secret military experiment goes awry. The disease gets out of the lab, creates monsters, and the Earth is practically destroyed. The monsters are vampire-like in that they feed on blood, but they don't speak, and only a tiny spark of their old self remains.
Like The Stand, what makes The Passage gripping is the adventures of a group of survivors who are determined to find the source of the plague destroying their world. Protected by lights that may soon fail, they venture out into the destroyed world, fighting the monsters. They encounter small groups of survivors and a mysterious voiceless girl who may hold the key to the origins of the disaster.
The plot rarely lets you down, and some of the writing is so lyrical that you find yourself in the dystopian, ravaged world. The survivors have little knowledge of the world's history, but they create new culture, new language and new social structures. This is the first book in a trilogy, and ends with the threat still out there. The Passage may be almost 800 pages, but you will turn them quickly. It comes out Tuesday.
Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth, hardcover, 400 pages, Ballantine Books, list price: $24.95
Blood Oath is also the first of a trilogy, and it combines, in a unique way, a vampire novel and a presidential thriller — sounds crazy, but stick with me.
In 1867, in the time of President Andrew Johnson, a young man named Nathaniel Cade is attacked by a vampire while working on a whaling ship. Overwhelmed by hunger — and to his own diminishing horror — he feeds on his best friend. He is imprisoned and later pardoned from a death sentence by the president, who binds him with a blood oath, compelling Cade to be a secret agent and protect all U.S. presidents.
Nathaniel Cade is taciturn and cold — a hunter and killer who believes himself damned, but still a Christian. He wears a cross, even though it hurts; he objects to words of blasphemy, and even goes to AA meetings to deal with his own blood lust. Like Spock in Star Trek, he seems emotionally dead if fascinating.
The novel begins when Cade's old handler is retiring, and Zach Barrows is hired to replace him. Young, ambitious and a Washington insider, Barrows dreams of being chief of staff. He is given this new assignment and told of a hidden world. Barrows' relationship with Cade — and his growing maturity in what is clearly a bizarre and dangerous job — is the most compelling aspect of the novel.
The various evils — a former Nazi scientist who wants to create Frankenstein monsters, a jihadist group; a shadow CIA — all seem a bit predictable, but there is pure fun here as well: a whole bunch of pseudo-documents, including a hilarious explanation for the missing 18 minutes in the Nixon tapes.
Cade has no love for humanity — his long life makes him view human foibles with some disdain. The best vampire novels struggle with moral questions: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to use power wisely? Cade struggles with his vanishing humanity, and author Farnsworth has the potential to create an even more interesting character in Book 2.