In The Twelve, the sequel to post-apocalyptic horror epic The Passage, author Justin Cronin plumbs some pretty bleak depths. About a third of the novel is set in the opening days of a pandemic that transforms common Joes and Janes into insectile, super-strong, vampiric monsters. Plenty of bad stuff goes down. A pair of children miraculously make their way to an evacuation point at Denver's Mile High Stadium on a school bus only to discover it's become a charnel house. A pregnant woman wanders through a decimated western suburb, her mind skewing into detached fantasies to avoid the horrors around her. A government official secretly grappling with Lou Gehrig's disease learns that the inexorable vampiric blight will soon render his struggle meaningless.
Grim stuff. Yet Cronin manages to find time for humor. In the following passage, an ex-Marine named Kittridge is trying to get to safety a ragtag band of survivors, including a tattooed jerk named Jamal and an old woman named Mrs. Bellamy "with a nimbus of blue-rinsed hair and an enormous white purse." When Jamal starts a brawl over a vote about who will lead the group, Cronin takes the opportunity to inject a little levity:
A gunshot slapped the air; everyone froze. All eyes swiveled to the rear of the bus, where Mrs. Bellamy was pointing an enormous pistol at the ceiling.The remainder of the section soon returns to prior terrors, yet that humorous aside braces readers for the woes to come. It's a good lesson: Writers can expose audiences to all sorts of privations if they take time to vary their tone.
"Lady," Jamal spat, "what the fuck."
"Young man, I think I speak for everyone when I say I'm tired of your crap. You're just as afraid as the rest of us. You owe an apology to these people."
It was completely surreal, Kittridge thought. Part of him was horrified; another part wanted to laugh.
"Okay, okay," Jamal sputtered. "Just put that cannon away."
"I think you can do better than that."
"I'm sorry, okay? Quit waving that thing around."
She thought a moment, then lowered the pistol. "I suppose that will have to do. Now, I do like the idea of a vote. This nice man in the front -- I'm sorry, my hearing isn't what it used to be -- what did you say your name was?"
"Mr. Kittridge. He seems perfectly capable to me. I say all in favor of his running things, let's see a show of hands."
Every hand went up except Jamal's.
"It would be nice if it could be unanimous, young man."
His face was burning with humiliation. "Christ, you old bag. What else do you want from me?"
"Forty years of teaching public school, believe me, I've dealt with more than my share of boys like you. Now, go one. You'll see how much better you feel."
With a look of defeat, Jamal raised his hand.
(Picture: CC 2010 by @reviewne)