I have a soft spot for vampire stories. As a matter of fact, Buffy (along with Ray Bradbury) was my roundabout way into science fiction. I used to think all that stuff was silly and generally inferior storytelling, but when an illness kept me on the couch for a day, I watched a Buffy marathon and revised my opinion about compelling storytelling. Buffy, The Lost Boys, and Anne Rice novels put a unique, but effective, spin on Dracula and Nosferatu, but at a certain point the vampire concept became a cliché. True Blood I can stomach, but the whole Twilight thing made me think I was done with vampires for good. Justin Cronin’s The Passage , however, changed my mind on that front.
I’m not going to lie, this book is long, coming in at just under 800 pages. At that length, readers will either give up after five pages or count their lucky stars that they get to remain in the story for such a long time, and I’m in the second camp. The beginning is a little bit slow, laying the foundation for the vampire apocalypse that seizes the world. As a reader, you don’t know how these pieces will add up, or why precisely they’re relevant, so the beginning requires a little bit of faith, but luckily it doesn’t take long for that faith to be rewarded.
One of the elements I found most interesting is the nature of the vampires themselves. They’re not a product of fantasy horror here; they don’t turn into bats, they don’t need invitations into homes, they don’t recoil at the sight of holy water. Cronin chucks those traditional vampiric elements out the window, and his bloodsuckers borrow from tradition when it comes to passing a disease on to others, avoiding the daylight and hunting at night, and being extraordinarily difficult to kill. The vampires of The Passage were created from a virus first found by an expedition to a far-flung Bolivian jungle, but of course, the government gets their hands on this bug and decides it’s a good idea to experiment with it on some convicts in an attempt to create ageless super soldiers. Not the brightest move, but not an entirely unexpected one either, and of course the people pay the price. The vampires, or “virals” as they’re called, wipe out almost all human and animal life as they spread across the country.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of Cronin’s book is the terrifyingly believable description of a post-apocalyptic world. Yes, dystopias are common these days, but readers can feel the texture of this one. It’s dark without being enveloped in blackness—there are still things to see, still people to root for, and still plenty to fear. My only real complaint is that some of Cronin’s characters feel like very stock, like you’ve seen some of them before.
He’s so adept at plot that he sometimes eclipses actual character development with it, so all a reader knows about a person is what he or she does, rather than what he or she thinks or feels. But he does have a number of strong female characters, which I always appreciate, and relationships in the book have a particular significance, given that the human race is on the brink of extinction and that there are few aspects to celebrate in this stricken world. By the end of the book I was legitimately emotionally involved, and admit I may have had to hold back a tear or two.
Much of the story takes place in the Colony, essentially an army barracks set up inside a ring floodlights that keep the Virals away at night. The survivors there tries to sustain life—they stand guard and patrol, but they also have kids, a school, jobs, and other details of normalcy. With the exception of a few brave and/or foolhardy supply missions, they don’t know anything about the rest of the world except that it has been decimated. But there’s a limit on the Colony’s lifespan—the technology that powers their lights and their survival won’t last forever, and if they’re going to survive, they’ll need a plan.
As in most stories like this, the plan comes in the most unexpected form: a little girl. Cronin’s 9-year-old daughter gave him the idea, telling her dad that she wanted him to write about a girl who saved the world. From there, she rode her bike as her dad took his daily jog around their Houston home, and together they spun out the story. At the time, Cronin was under contract to write another book, but he couldn’t get the story of The Passage out of his mind, and he went for it. It spent some time on the New york Times’ best-seller list, and the movie rights have been optioned by none other than Ridley Scott.
The Passage is the first of a trilogy. I’m currently reading the sequel, The Twelve and will review it when I’m done (so far, it pales in comparison to The Passage). The third book doesn’t have a release date yet, but I bet Cronin and his daughter are looping the block right now, figuring out how this apocalyptic saga should end.