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.


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