Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a post-apocalyptic vampire thriller with similar oral history elements to World War Z, was one of the phenomena of the summer of 2010, read by many, immediately optioned by Hollywood, and much-discussed as part of the larger vampire trend. But the sequel, The Twelve, which came out last fall, seemed to garner a quieter reception. Reading it over the weekend, I can see why: the number of characters and timelines makes Game of Thrones look like a Garfield cartoon, the mythology collapses into mystic psychobabble, and the novel eschews moral questions in favor of action sequences. But in one respect, The Twelve deepens questions raised in its predecessor. Buried in the rest of this brick of a novel are some startlingly beautiful meditations on the motivations for and consequences of sexual assault, and what the accusation that someone has committed violence towards a woman renders it permissible to do to that person.
The first of three main three main perspectives into this subject is Lawrence Grey, a sex offender whose molestation of young boys is an outgrowth of his own experience of a sex abuse survivor. He’s one of the felons who is tasked to do menial work in service of Project NOAH, the federal program to develop super-soldiers with vampire-like qualities, and when the Twelve, the experimental subjects of that program, stage their mass escape from the facility where they are being experimented on, Grey is one of their victims, and acquires some of their qualities. But after he’s abandoned by his fellows, he finds himself mistaken for someone else by Lila Kyle, a pregnant woman who has retreated into delusions in response to the post-apocalypse, and Grey is pulled into helping her. As terrible as their circumstances are, they give Grey a shot at being a decent person, even as he’s been transformed into someone who needs to drink blood to survive.
“It was a kind of love,” Grey reflects on Lila, and at the only woman he came close to having a normal romantic or sexual relationship with as a teenager, before his own trauma lead him to harm others. “Like Nora Chung, only a thousand times deeper, an energy that desired nothing, that took nothing; it wanted only to give itself away. It was true: Lila had come into his life for a purpose, to give him one last chance. And yet he had failed her.” It’s a tremendously poignant thought. There’s no question that Grey has damaged other people, that he is a criminal and deserved to be incarcerated. But his longing for a tremendously simple thing that’s been placed out of reach for him is enormously sad, even as we’re able to reckon with the hurt he did others before he was turned.
Less sympathetic is Julio Martínez, one of the Twelve original vampires, who became a prisoner when his respectable lawyer’s facade was shattered after he was caught with the body of a woman he’d raped and murdered in his car trunk–not, it turned out, his only victim–and he killed the police officer who made that discovery. Cronin’s description of the kind of narcissism that animates Martínez in his killings while he’s still human is remarkably precise. “Louise was nothing to him,” Martínez reflects in a memory that another character gains access to. “She was an organization of warm surfaces created only for his desire and dispatch. Her name was written plainly on her blouse, and yet his mind could not connect this name to the human person he was strangling in the midst of raping, because the only thing real to him was himself.” Rape isn’t about sex here: it’s about power in the form of the abnegation of someone else.
Martínez isn’t the only rapist in The Twelve. In a concentration-camp like settlement of humans and humans who drink vampire blood, Alicia Donadio, a sniper who became something like the Twelve while remaining in her humanity, is captured. When torture fails to work, Horace Guilder, the head of the camp who’s become obsessively preoccupied with an insurgency, sends in a guard called Sod, of whom another character says he “would have raped the wind if it had a hole in it,” to try to break Alicia. Once again, rape is about power and self-gratification. “Sanctioned rape: that was something new,” Guilder reflects. “That was a bit of a head-scratcher. It was the kind of thing that happened in small, brutal countries where men with machetes hacked people to bits for no reason other than the fact that they’d been born in the wrong village, or had slightly different ears, or preferred chocolate to vanilla. The thought should have repelled him…Strange how something could seem completely crazy one day and entirely reasonable the next.” Alicia isn’t a person who might have her own motivations for sneaking into the settlement. She exists only for Guilder to project motivations and reactions onto, for his own gratification and paranoia.
And so there’s something fitting about what happens when Alicia escapes from custody, killing Sod in the process, and faces Martínez: she dehumanizes him, now in vampiric form, back. “He was Julio Martínez, Esq., Tenth of Twelve. He was Sod of the bench and the grunting exhalations. He was all the men in all the years of history who had violated a woman in this manner, and she would drive her blade deep into the dark heart of him and feel him die,” Alicia thinks. She preserves her humanity. He dies one of a mass of monsters, not even recognizable by the viciousness of his serial crimes.
Finally, there’s Anthony Carter, who was convicted of a murder of a woman he did not commit. Rather than drowning her, he was intervening in her botched suicide, but because he was black and poor, he was found guilty, an act that allowed the federal government to decide it was justified in turning him into a monster against his consent. But while Carter’s body and mind are transformed by Project NOAH, his will is not. It’s Amy Harper Bellafonte, who as a child who was given a version of the virus that turned the other vampires into the monsters they became, who finds Carter, who rather than becoming a killing machine who’s assembled an army of followers, has sealed himself in a ship in an act of self-abnegation, where he relives the death of the woman he was found guilty of murdering, becoming “Carter the Sorrowful, the One Who Could Not, locked in the prison that he himself had made.” Amy’s understanding of his what truly happened during that supposed murder is one of the most powerful moments in the novel:
Amy felt it, felt it all. She felt and saw and knew. The woman’s arms around him, pulling him down and down. The taste of pool water, like demon’s breath. The soft thunk as they reached the bottom, their bodies entwined like lovers’. How Carter had loved her. That was what Amy felt most keenly: his love. The man’s life had stopped right there, at the bottom of the pool, his mind forever trapped in a loop of sorrow. Oh please, let me, thought Anthony Carter. I’ll die if you want me to, I would die for you if you asked, let me be the one to die instead. And then the bubbles rising as the woman took the first breath, her lungs filling with the awful water, the deep spasm of death moving through her; and then the letting go. His was the sadness at the center of the world. The Chevron Mariner: that’s what this place was. It was the very beating heart of grief.
There are an enormous number of wasted threads in The Twelve, from the novel’s mention of pilots who refused to drop explosives on civilians to try to deny vampires a food source, to the rise of a monastic religion among the human survivors of the scourge. But the novel’s melancholy understanding of what we do to the innocent when we give ourselves permission to do terrible things to the guilty is a quiet cri de couer in the middle of its messy action sequences and post-apocalyptic cliches, The Twelve‘s own version of Anthony Carter’s act of mourning in a grave he built for himself.