It is no surprise that Stephen King’s praise adorns the front cover of Justin Cronin’s novel. Huge, sprawling, plot-driven, and populated by a host of characters, it is the type of fiction that King was famous for twenty years ago. In many ways The Passage is an anachronistic novel. It is a return to the ‘epic’ scope of horror fiction that dominated the genre in the ‘80s before compression was enforced by commercial and aesthetic restraint. The overarching plot is not particularly groundbreaking. Involving the emergence of a man-made virus that turns humans into vampiric ‘virals’ and detailing the struggles of a post-apocalyptic community to survive the crisis, Cronin’s novel reads like a cross between King’s The Stand (1979) and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), via Robert McCammon’s Swan’s Song (1987).
This is not to suggest that The Passage is unoriginal. Whilst debts are certainly owed, Cronin’s apocalyptic vision is refreshingly offbeat. Indeed, The Passage could be classified as post-post-apocalyptic insofar as the narrative begins a few years in the future when North America is already suffering from ecological problems and increased terrorism. New Orleans, for example, is uninhabitable; now a huge petrochemical complex where the water can melt the skin. It is into this ravaged landscape that the second apocalypse arrives in the form of biologically mutated vampires. The first section of the book details the events leading up to the crisis before leaping a hundred years into the future to depict a semi-agrarian enclave of humanity subsisting in the (now) wilderness of California.
This leap forward is one of many innovations in Cronin’s novel. Unlike the majority of apocalyptic fiction,The Passage pays scant attention to the crisis itself. Instead the downfall of society, referred to as Year Zero, occurs unbeknownst to the protagonists in hiding. This affords a heightened pathos to the journey taken by the future survivors as they, like the reader, discover the residue of past trauma in their travels across the empty continent.
Breaking the narrative into such distinct before and after sections is a big risk. The significant amount of space given to the pre-apocalyptic characters (in itself almost the length of a conventional novel) makes the introduction of a wholly new cast of jarring. Reading the beginning of the post-apocalyptic section feels like reading a different book. Thankfully Cronin manages to tie the two storylines together satisfyingly, if a tad contrivedly in places.
The real beauty of The Passage is its envisioning of a post apocalyptic community striving to maintain a grip on the technological benefits of a lost civilisation. In a world in which light is the only shelter from the nocturnal enemy, the pocket of humanity is forced to milk every drop of energy from an increasingly dwindling source. The realisation that the lights will soon go out acts as the impetus behind the quest narrative which fills the latter half of the novel, but it also adds a degree of nihilism to what would otherwise be a relatively bucolic setting were it not for the vampires.
And what a welcome sight Cronin’s vampires are. A world away from the recent vamp-light trend, the creatures in The Passage are absolute killing machines. Cronin has the room to explain at length the origins of the vampire plague: the result of an attempt to weaponise a South American virus which affords a vastly elongated life span and superhuman powers. Such scientific exposition doesn’t always fit well with the vampires’ semi-supernatural aspects but this is a minor quibble. Swooping down from above like a hybrid of bat and killer shark they carry a palpable threat.
The film rights to The Passage have already been purchased by Ridley Scott’s production company, and with two sequels (provisionally entitled The Twelve and The City of Mirrors) forthcoming it seems that vampires may be here to stay. And whilst these vampires may glow in the dark they certainly don’t glitter.
Justin Cronin, The Passage, Orion, 2010.
Reviewed By Neil McRobert
by Neil McRobert on January 05, 2011