The Passage by Justin Cronin

Title: The Passage
Series: The Passage #1
Justin Cronin
First published 8 June 2012; this edition published 17 may 2011
Ballantine Books
horror, post-apocalyptic, science fiction, fantasy
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

The Passage is an excellent reminder for me to be wary of bestsellers. Some are just as wonderful as the hype suggests, but most end up being dull, conventional blather that is simply easy for a lot of people to like. If your idea of a really good book is something that surpasses the norm in terms of writing, characters, or ingenuity, then don’t read The Passage.

The plot is familiar. The military experiments with a virus that’s supposed to create supersoldiers, but creates monsters instead. The monsters escape and start killing people while infecting others. Soon, North America, and possibly the world, is overrun, with small groups of humans trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Humanity’s only hope lies in a unique test subject who got all the benefits of the virus and none of the human-devouring aggression.

Well thanks, but I’ve seen all the Resident Evil movies. They’re fantastically stupid, but it’s much more fun to watch Milla Jovovich kick zombie ass than slog through 800 pages of unnecessarily detailed, slow-paced pseudo-horror.

Like many readers and reviewers, I only enjoyed the first 250 pages, in which Cronin sets up the main plot (yes, it takes that long). Through a series of emails, we learn that a scientist named Lear to the jungles of Boliva, hoping to find the cure for all human ailments. He’s accompanied by soldiers and researchers, almost all of whom die horribly when attacked by vampire bats. However, the mission achieves its goal when Lear returns with a man infected with the virus they were looking for.

Thus begins Project Noah, so-named because Noah lived for over 900 years in the bible. The virus is supposed to make people similarly near-immortal, and because it’s a military initiative, the main, narrow-minded goal is to “weaponize” the human form, accompanied by a vision of “the American Way as something truly long-term. As in permanent”. To test the virus, twelve death-row inmates are recruited with the promise of immortality.

So we’ve got jingoistic hubris, twelve murderers who get eternal life instead of death, and a virus from crazed vampire bats. Obviously things will go horribly wrong. The test subjects are turned into sparkling bioluminescent vampires with skin like diamonds “so hard it made Kevlar look like pancake batter”. One of them also has psychic powers that he uses to manipulate the guards into letting them out, and thus begins the vampire apocalypse.

Unfortunately it takes almost a quarter of the novel for us to get that far, or even encounter a scene that you could actually call horror, because there are parallel plots telling the detailed stories of Wolgast, Carter, and Amy. Brad Wolgast is an FBI agent whose job it is to recruit the death-row inmates for Project NOAH. He and his partner Doyle head off to pick up the last of the inmates – Anthony Carter, a small, shy, and slightly retarded black man, who is actually innocent of killing the rich white woman whose lawn he used to mow.

After recruiting Carter, Wolgast and Doyle are sent to pick up (ie. kidnap) Amy, a six-year-old girl recently abandoned at a convent by her destitute mother. How Project NOAH found out about her or why exactly they want her is left to your imagination. Amy has been taken in by a nun with some sort of psychic power who just knows that their destinies are entwined. Amy herself has a special power, but we’re never told what it is. Wolgast and Doyle nab her, and although Wolgast tries to escape with her, she ends up at the NOAH base where she’s infected with the virus, shortly before the vampire apocalypse begins.

I enjoyed the novel up until this point. It’s very slow, and you get far more detail about the characters than you need, but it was interesting enough. It takes a long time for the main plot to get going, but with 800 pages and two sequels in the works, I figured Cronin could take his time. Then, to my dismay, the plot jumped forward 92 years and completely failed to ever be quite as interesting as the first part.

A tedious series of diary entries explains that a colony of survivors was established in California, forming a society that has lived there ever since. There are a lot of subplots involving families, friends and romantic attachments, as well as a lot of information about how the colony is run, but the gist of the story is that the machinery supplying the electricity is getting worn down and when the lights go out the vampires will come and everyone will die screaming. Amy eventually comes back into the story, having wandered alone for almost a century. She holds the key to ending the vampire apocalypse, and a group of young colonists embark on a journey to take her to Colorado, following a faint radio signal asking anyone who finds Amy to take her there.

It was a bit jarring to jump from one set of characters to another, with a completely different plot that’s even slower than the first. I also found that I didn’t care much about these new characters. Cronin gives us lots of details about their backgrounds and current situations, and yet most of them remain dull. I got very impatient waiting for Amy to come back into the story, but when she did I was disappointed. She barely speaks and is mostly passive, just like her six-year-old self in the first part. She’s a century-old woman in the body of a child, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she behaves. Amy is potentially the most interesting character, but she’s kept in the background and is unable to answer any pressing questions for either the reader or the new characters, who know nothing about how the vampire plague began. She’s supposed to be the “girl who saves the world”, but not because of any action she takes. Her power lies only in what she is or what she’s made to be, and it’s the other characters who must take action and manoeuvre her into position like an inanimate tool.

I wasn’t too impressed with the vampires either. They’re more like vampire zombies, because they become mindless bloodsuckers. The first vampires are known as The Twelve (which is also the title for the second book), while the rest are their descendants, a hoard known as The Many. None of them manage to be particularly scary. I was really hoping that Amy at least would be creepy, but she is consistently bland.

By the last quarter, I was getting very tired of the whole story, which started to feel increasingly random and chaotic, like a mad dash to the finish. Perhaps Cronin had been losing steam too. The worst part was the way the novel went from being light sci fi to some kind of spiritualist fantasy at the climax. For so long I’d been waiting patiently for proper explanations of how the virus worked, what made Amy special, and why the virus reacted differently to her. The novel has the opportunity to provide all of this information but gives none of it. We do find out what role Amy has to play in the vampire apocalypse, but it’s not a scientific explanation – it’s a vague, semi-Christian phenomenon with no connection to what we know about the virus. In fact, by this point in the novel, we frequently see science or sci fi falling away to be replaced by fantasy, spiritualism or general vagueness. The most annoying example is when an important ‘scientific’ character dies and allows a religious one to live so that we end up being given the latter character’s Christian interpretation of events instead of a detailed technical one. It’s extremely frustrating and totally unsatisfying. If Cronin is holding back all the interesting information for the sequels, then he’s doing this novel a huge disservice.

Why the hell is this so popular?  I kept asking myself this as I trudged on, and came up with a few guesses. It’s pretty easy to read, despite its length. With all the travelling the characters do, it functions as a kind of epic American novel, exploring the country’s landscape. The content focuses on domestic drama more than it does on horror or science, which I think makes it appealing to a wider audience. I dislike all the spiritual/religious stuff particularly since it doesn’t suit earlier parts of the novel, but I know I’m probably in the minority there and for some it probably makes the book more meaningful.

I have to admit that, for some stupid reason, I feel an urge to read The Twelve. I think my brain is still being manipulated by all the hype that surrounds The Passage. I better set it straight before I spend another week reading a boring novel that’s twice as long as it needs to be.


Buy The Passage at The Book Depository

17 thoughts on “The Passage by Justin Cronin

  1. Oh wow, I’ve agreed with a lot of your reviews but this one is way off the mark. Basically, you mentioned the plot of the book and spent no time at all discussing the characterisation of many of the characters and the wonderful way in which the whole dynamics between them enfolds. I loved the book immensely.

    • That’s a fair point, and I think a lot of people loved the book because of the characters. It’s a character-based novel, but readers seem very divided as to whether or not the characters are interesting enough to drive the narrative. I only liked the first set, and the dynamics there – the way Wolgast ‘adopts’ Amy as a kind of surrogate for his dead daughter; Carter’s longing to live longer so he can come to some understanding about what happened with the woman he was accused of killing; the fact that Richards knows this will all end badly but is so blindly committed to his job that he runs Project NOAH anyway.

      I should have mentioned this, perhaps, and I would have if the novel had stuck with those characters. But it’s a long book and a long review so I left it out. The second group of characters left me cold, and although their interactions make up the majority of the book, I found that mostly boring. My strongest impression of the novel was of a problematic plot submerged in what I found to be bland character dynamics, so my review reflected that.

      • Wow. I haven’t thought of it. So I realized I am a sort of a character-based-novel reader..I like books who paint detailed characters. I’ve actually read the Passage and the Twelve twice. But I also remember getting bored somewhere on the second part of the first book,. However, I still like the story. Others describe Cronin’s book with King’s The Stand as somewhat similar, but for me Cronin is the milder version of King. King’s books give me nightmares so I tend to drop off reading some of his books. I still want to have a healthy psyche after finishing a horror novel. I am currently reading the third book of Cronin, City of Mirrors. So far, it hasn’t disappointed me yet.

  2. I felt the same way about this as you did, and yet I still (for some reason) forced myself to read The Twelve.

    I think I wouldn’t have struggled with The Passage as much if it had either been cut by at least 300 pages OR if it had been expanded upon and broken up into 2 or 3 shorter novels.

    As it is, I just couldn’t bring myself to care much about anyone.

    And that ending was the worst.

    • Oh, that bit with Amy and the virus at the end – ARGH! As if she hadn’t been boring enough. Thanks for the destroying your most potentially interesting plot point, Cronin! And then dragging out the story for another couple of chapters.

      I still want to read The Twelve, and I really don’t know why. I don’t particularly want to encounter any of the characters again, and I’m not that curious about how it all turns out. And I don’t expect that my questions will be answered. It’s just that it’s a considered a big deal and I sort want to find out what’s going on. Which is dumb. And do I really want to waste all that time?

      • I read The Twelve with a friend, and to keep from torturing ourselves too much, we read 2-4 “Parts” a day. It was a 12 Part book, so we finished it in less than a week while still being able to read other things. I think that made it a little more bearable.

        As it was, I still feel like this book/series has a lot of potential that is completely being wasted. I have a feeling the film will be better than the book, if only because they’ll cut out a lot of the crap that didn’t work and cause it to be the tighter narrative it could have been.

  3. The Passage definitely has its flaws and I agree with a lot of what you said about the characters and Amy. At times I didn’t want to like it, especially after Cronin jumps forward almost 100 years, but I really enjoyed it and thought it was fun despite all that. Although the enjoyment was cut with some disappointment because I do believe it could have been truly great.

    • I really wanted to like this too. I was so excited when I was approved for a review copy. But it certainly seems like one of those bestsellers that deeply divides its audience.

  4. I have to say that you went bit off the mark. If you read first part of the Passage carefully, you’ll see that it also has a lot of religious elements, almost as much as latter part of the book. Yes, it does have science, but it is mixed with religious elements from the very start.

    • I did notice the religious elements (or at least some of them), and they annoyed me. I have a personal bias here, I admit. I find religion interesting culturally, so I don’t mind when it defines a certain character or society. However, I consider it a kind of mythology, so I dislike it when it’s treated as objective truth in sf or realist narratives, because it belongs in the realm of fantasy. Hence my disdain for Lacey. I found it INFURIATING that she gets to explain the plague in religious terms and we are never granted a proper scientific explanation.

      That said, I think an article on the religious elements of The Passage could be very interesting. It’s something I’d want to write myself, but the book was too boring to re-read and study.

      • I’m Catholic, but that is irrelevant for what I was saying. Point was that you wrote this:

        “The worst part was the way the novel went from being light sci fi to some kind of spiritualist fantasy at the climax.”

        It was “kind of spiritualist fantasy” from the beginning, and it was also sci-fi until the end. As for the plague, scientific explanation is basically: they found a virus in jugles of Bolivia, one which apparently turned people into vampires. They tried to reengineer it to have all the benefits without the “bloodthirsty vampire” part, but mostly failed. Vampires escaped confinement and infected rest of the US (and, possibly, world). I noticed that part in question also plays with genetic memory.

        • Ah ok, I see what you mean. Fair point.
          I wasn’t satisfied with the science though. How does the virus work? Why do the vampires travel in groups of two or three? How are the Twelve connected to the vampires they create? Most importantly, what makes Amy special? Why does she have the powers she has and why didn’t the virus affect her in the same was as it did the Twelve? I felt that the reader was owed these explanations.

          • 1) Virus basically sends thymus gland into overdrive. I don’t remember anything else being specified.

            2) Amy was child when she was injected with virus, so apparently her body was able to combat the virus, creating new version in process. Also, she was injected with different strain of virus than other test subjects (including Zero) to begin with.

            3) Twelve, and Zero, are telepaths, basically, and each of them has one strain of virus, and can control all virals that are carrying that strain. Only Zero’s strain is “natural”, whereas strains Twelve are injected with are modifications of Zero’s strain.

            4) AFAIK, vampires only travel in groups of three. I don’t remember any explanation, though.

            • 1. Yeah, that’s not enough of an explanation for me. Even Resident Evil makes more of an effort.

              2. If Amy had a unique reaction to the virus simply because she’s a child, then why did they go after her specifically? Any normal child would have sufficed. And how did they even know about her? Although I don’t recall it ever being stated outright, it is heavily implied that they wanted Amy because she already possessed special powers, making her physiologically different in a way that affects her reaction to the virus. Why else would they kidnap her and not go for an easier target? But we don’t ever learn what makes her different. Of course, this may be revealed in the sequels, but for me it made this book deeply unsatisfying.
              Alternatively, if they did in fact just need a child to experiment on, and randomly chose Amy who, coincidentally, had special powers, then it makes the book even worse. That would be both implausible (surely there are easier targets than Amy?) and contrived (how convenient that they chose the perfect subject).

              3. I can’t recall – is telepathy caused by the virus, or was Zero a telepath to begin with? If Zero was a telepath and his gift was passed on genetically, then fine. If the virus grants telepathy, then I want to know how/why. Do the Bolivian bats possess some form of telepathy?

              4. I don’t recall an explanation either, although I don’t consider this one that important, since no one had a chance to study the vampires after the outbreak.

              I’m not always this fussy about the technical details. Sometimes, not knowing these things isn’t important or even enhances the appeal of the book. But in this case leaving out the specs felt wrong and was very frustrating.

              • 2. From what I understand, Amy was taken because she was abandoned. There was mention of some wierd things happening at the zoo, and a lot of symbology from the beginning (which is what I was referring to with “It was “kind of spiritualist fantasy” from the beginning”), but I’m not sure that’s why Amy was taken. Only thing I remember being specified was that subject should be a child, and one with no family.

                3. Telepathy was caused by the virus, and all virals seem to have some kind of telepathic abilities, though only Zero and The Twelve were shown to be capable of using these actively, to influence others.

  5. Trying to read it but failing. Too slow for my taste. I wish I’d have seen your review before buying it. Nicely written but can’t be bothered because nothing is happening.

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