The Passage by Justin Cronin: A Sprawling, Apocalyptic Thriller that Makes Vampires Cool Again

IMG_3869

If you watch cable television these days, it’s a safe bet that you’ve seen an ad for a FOX show called The Passage, a drama starring Mark-Paul Gosselear, Henry Ian Cusick, and up-and-coming actress Saniyya Sidney. FOX’s marketing campaign was extensive, with ads beginning in the weeks leading up to the premiere and showcasing scenes of intense gunfights and fiery explosions.  The Passage seems all but destined to be a moneymaker for the network; it contains all the elements of compelling TV: pretty people, intense action, and evil monsters trying to destroy them all.

For those uninformed, The Passage is based on a series of books from author Justin Cronin, the first of them being the book from which the TV show takes its name. It first came across my radar in 2012, when I saw it on Complex.com’s list of The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium. I’ve just finished my second reading of the novel, and let me tell you–it more than lives up to that billing. The Passage reclaims vampires for the horror genre, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Surprisingly literary, the true horror comes less from the blood and guts and more from the characters’ constant struggle for survival in a ruined world. The Passage takes readers around an unrecognizable United States, meandering at times but ultimately reaching its destination in climactic fashion; it more than sets the table for the rest of the series, but it’s also strong enough to stand alone. Think Dracula meets The Stand, but with better writing. Sign me up. 

The Passage begins, like so many other works of great fiction, with a scientific screw up. The screw up results in a dozen former-test-subjects-turned-rabid-vampire-things (virals) roaming the earth, eating people, and wreaking havoc. The government’s only line of defense is a six year old girl named Amy, who somehow possesses an immunity to the vampire virus despite the fact that she was injected with it as well. The problem is, she’s gone into hiding and no one knows where she is. As people die and cities crumble, bands of citizens must cling together to survive, forming new societies and playing by a new set of rules–all while outnumbered 100-1 by creatures that would devour them without so much as a second thought.

From a story perspective, The Passage reads like a master-class in plotting. The novel is more or less split between two time periods, referred to as B.V. (Before Virals) and A.V. (After Virals). Separated by a period of 80 years or so, the two chunks of narrative could not be more different– at times feeling like distinct entities –but Cronin effortlessly blends past and present, and does so in a variety of ways. There’s no “tell-all” chapter that would be present in the work of a lesser author. Instead, it’s a slow burn– after the initial dose of dramatic irony, the reader assumes the viewpoint of a few memorable characters as they try to piece together the past and live in the undesirable future. Cronin plays what readers thought they knew against them, and the novel becomes as gripping and mysterious as anything on the market. Seriously– The Passage contains just as many jaw-dropping moments as a Game of Thrones episode.

Though The Passage reads like a novel one would pick up solely for the plot, Cronin’s chops as a writer shine just as brightly on the character front. A graduate of The Iowa Writers Workshop, the man can really craft memorable heroes. As one might expect from a novel in which the entire United States goes to hell in a handbasket, the cast of characters is plucked from the remains of the survivors. As a result, said cast is incredibly diverse, and it’s refreshing to see this play out on the page. The casual conversation will bring necessary comic relief, and the more difficult spots are sure to pull at the heart strings. Even the role-players feel remarkably fleshed-out. Readers with writerly designs would do well to pay attention to how Cronin structures the interactions between Amy and Agent Wolgast; I can’t recall the last time a relationship between two characters felt so authentic. It’s damn near flawless.

As brilliant as The Passage is, a novel of over 700 pages cannot be perfect. It’s difficult to say a negative word about the pacing, structure, and prose, but the narrative does get a bit circuitous. In this age of post-apocalyptic thrillers, The Passage isn’t quite sure of the space it wants to occupy. It’s a mishmosh of classic monster horror with survival narrative, but it’s one that focuses so much on the human condition that these elements find themselves in competition. Is it the story of the survivors, or is it the story of an epic battle between good and evil? Should we care that the book slows down a bit as we see the Hollis and Sarah fall in love, or is the fact that they’re able to fall in love despite the circumstances the point of it all? Ultimately, it’s a taste question, and, realistically, the only drawback is that certain parts of the narrative begin to feel unnecessary and tired within the context with the whole. It’s hard work to avoid this in a novel this ambitious, but I did wonder if the editor should have left a hundred pages or so on the cutting room floor. (Apparently, Cronin felt the same way–the remaining two novels are substantially shorter.) Nonetheless, pushing through the slog for a bit turns out to be well worth it; the book redeems itself and the last few chapters are un-put-downable.

Vampires aren’t for everyone, and I get that. A lot of people are turned off by the flood of post-apocalyptic fiction in today’s market, which is also understandable. However, The Passage is so much more than a retelling of Dracula or an Odyssey copycat. It’s a story of humanity, of people fighting for other people against impossible odds. It’ll make you believe in the human race again while simultaneously scoffing at how man can be so foolish. In a sense, it’s a parable of unchecked technological advancement, an examination of the “Should Humans Play God?” question–and it’s powerful. It’s not gory enough to scare away those with queasy stomachs and it’s not highbrow enough so to turn its nose at genre. It’s rare to read a book that is such a complete hybrid of the two poles, but this is one of those. It’s a long commitment, and reading the rest of the trilogy will take additional time, but The Passage is worth it. I liked it so much I read it twice, and I’m happy to report that it holds up just as well on take two.

Up Next: I’m currently reading the next book in this trilogy, The Twelve. If I keep devouring it at my current pace, I should have the review up next weekend. After that one’s done, I have to take a break from the series so I can read Pet Sematary before the movie comes out. After that, I’ll finish this series with The City of Mirrors. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s