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The Passage by Justin CroninUK edition3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHere’s The Passage’s elevator pitch: The Stand meets I Am Legend by way of 28 Days Later. It was good enough to earn Houstonian Justin Cronin a $3.75 million payday from Ballantine, with an additional $1.75 million thrown in by Ridley Scott for the film rights (it eventually emerged as a miniseries). Not bad bank for an idea Cronin got from his nine-year-old daughter. Looks to me like more writers ought to start consulting their kids.

An apocalyptic epic running over 760 pages in hardcover, The Passage spans a century of time and details the downfall of humanity at the hands, teeth, and claws of the virals. Cronin steals from his influences as wantonly as Quentin Tarantino. Government experiments gone awry? Desperate groups of human survivors fighting for their lives from within barricaded enclaves? And a child to represent the last, best hope for humanity? You name it, it’s here. Cronin proudly leaves no trope behind. 

But Cronin is a highly skilled wordsmith with an affinity for character favorably comparable to that of a young Stephen King, his most obvious literary kindred spirit, with the added benefit that he isn’t simply recycling the same dozen or so stock characters King seems to have gotten fond of. For a tale that cannot, in all honesty, be said to be especially original, The Passage still manages, by virtue of its canny combination of sensitivity and spectacle, to make its mark. At the height of his powers thirty years ago, this is very much the kind of seminal work of dark fantasy King might have produced. Fans of end-of-it-all tomes like The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, who have been wondering why no one seems to be writing books like those anymore, will without a doubt take to The Passage like vampires to virgins.

We open in 2016 with the discovery of a virus deep within the sultry Bolivian jungles that has the disagreeable effect of transforming you into a rampaging, blood-drinking beast that glows in the dark. But don’t call them vampires. They're virals, and pretty boys like Twilight’s Edward wouldn't last a picosecond. You’d think that the sensible response to this discovery would be to napalm the damn jungle, but since when was the military ever sensible in apocalyptic fiction? No, our army thinks the whole thing is totally awesome, and promptly begins the usual let’s-create-indestructible-super-soldiers experiments on death row inmates they’ve shipped to super-sekrit underground labs in Colorado, a state that should probably rethink its real estate laws regarding super-sekrit underground labs. 

You know where this is going: the subjects break free, shit gets real, and before long it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine if rather light-headed from catastrophic blood loss. But before this happens, there’s another item to worry about. Amy, an orphan child abandoned by her mother at a Memphis convent, is located by morally conflicted FBI Agent Wolgast, who is ordered to transport her to Colorado. It’s the feeling that the virus’s development might be easier to control and direct in the developing system of a child, because things aren’t exacly working out as planned with the prisoners, to put it mildly. But the military will never know the effects of the virus on Amy — which are indeed profoundly different — once all hell breaks loose. 

The pre-apocalypse sequence comprises roughly the book’s first 200 pages, and there is some splendid storytelling there. Cronin relates the fall of civilization not only in action scenes but in quiet, character-driven moments as well. Much of it plays out offstage, as we join Wolgast and Amy, who have secreted themselves in a remote campsite, where Wolgast hopes to make amends for his role in unfolding events in a surrogate-father sort of way. Catastrophe taken to the personal level and given the less-is-more treatment often has a more emotionally profound result, and Cronin has a natural gift for this. But he can pull off some enjoyable carnage too, especially when he sprinkles horror with wry humor. (“...he experienced the sensation, utterly new to him, of being torn in half.”)

The remaining two-thirds of the story shift us nearly a century into the future, where we find ourselves in the First Colony, somewhere to the east of Los Angeles. Here a handful of families huddled together in a few acres surrounded by high fences and bright lights do their best to survive day by day, ever watchful of the roving packs of virals that emerge without warning in the night. Cronin’s portrayal of the personal and political dynamics of the colony is sobering and believable, as is the realization of just how precarious their existence truly is. Only a handful of them know that the irreplaceable cells that power their lights are about to run out for good. When a daylight expedition to a power station results in the discovery of Amy, living a near-feral existence in a shopping mall and (unbeknownst to the colony folks, obviously) barely aged after 92 years, events will take a decisive turn, impacting the entire colony’s fate.

Again, it’s hard to separate The Passage fully from all that’s come before, and from which it’s unapologetically derivative. An extended sequence set in the ruins of Las Vegas is the book’s most on-the-nose reference to The Stand. But the farther you get, the more confident you can see Cronin becoming, until, by its last 150 pages, the story has matured into a piece of richly satisfying escapism with authentic epic scope. Despite its length it never bogs down or wanders off on narrative tangents. Its failings amount to a series of nitpicks. For instance, during the Vegas chapters, Cronin clumsily defuses the tension from one chase scene by having one character implausibly save himself by frantically grabbing a handy cooking pot. Apparently it’s the reflection the viral sees in the bottom of the pot that bewilders it into immobility — but the bottom of a cooking pot isn’t the reflective part! There’s also a chase scene involving a speeding train that feels a bit Michael Bay-ishly over the top. And towards the climax, some encounters between characters seem a little too carefully contrived to be true. But fumbles like these are mostly recovered by strong entertainment value. 

What unanswered questions the story leaves are things we expect to be explored in the sequels. If the book’s character moments are its best, its fantasy elements do feel weaker. But the impression given is that these are secrets yet to unravel. What’s left to address in more detail is exactly how the telepathic powers of the virals work (the Twelve, the original prisoner test subjects, can invade your dreams), particularly in relation to Amy, who we know from the start had such powers herself before the apocalypse occurred. Early in the book she takes a trip to the zoo, where her presence agitates the animals so strongly people end up fleeing in a panic. And later on, characters who have never met her confess to seeing her in their dreams for years. But why is she this way at all? Where did her curious powers come from, if not the experiments? Who exactly is this Christ-like waif? What is she? I guess we’ll see. 

It’s always right and proper to be wary of hype, and with as much invested in this trilogy as Ballantine has, you can bet they’re firing the hype machine on all twelve cylinders. You can safely disregard all of it. Having read the book, I can say that if I’d simply spotted it on the racks and been utterly clueless as to its origins and the mountains of money poured into its creation, I’d have enjoyed it at precisely the level at which it seeks to be enjoyed: perfect beach reading for the shores of the Styx. The Passage has what it takes to go viral.

Followed by The Twelve.