Book: The Passage
Author: Justin Cronin
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Horror / Suspense Thriller
Release: June 8, 2010
Length: 784 pages (Hardcover)
Rating: A (100 / 100)
In a single stroke, Cronin has single-handedly returned dignity to the vampire genre.
The Passage is one of the most beautifully written horror novels ever written. It tells a story encompassing dozens of characters over a span of a hundred years with such deft skill as to leave other post-apocalyptic novels in its dust. It’s a must read for all fans of Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, or post-apocalyptic thrillers!
Pros: Epic story. Excellent characters. Compelling story. Authentic suspense.
Cons: Starts slowly. Ends abruptly.
In Brief: The Passage tells the story of the century following the escape of test subjects infected with a virus developed by the military, and the long, slow transformation mankind undergoes as a result.
Official: First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear—of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.
As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey—spanning miles and decades—towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.
Summarized, The Passage sounds like any of the hundreds of post-apocalyptic monster novels already saturating the market. But Cronin puts his own fresh new twist on the genre, and what follows is the one of the best horror novels released in recent memory.
In The Passage, Vampires – though they are never called Vampires – are humans who have taken on physical aspects of bats as the result of secret experiments conducted by the military. Predictably, the experiment, intended to endow subjects with super-human healing, precipitates the apocalypse, as secret experiments are wont to do. However, that’s where the predictability of the novel ends.
Though Cronin pointedly pays tribute to Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula late in the novel, the “Virals” of The Passage bear little resemblance to classic vampires. Cronin’s vampires don’t glitter; they don’t struggle with forbidden romance; and they would never be mistaken for goth kids by the locals. The virals are bat-like in appearance with a bat-like aversion to sunlight. They can survive the day, but it disorients them. They hunt in pods and are vulnerable to attack at only one point.
In the transition from man to viral, the victims of the virus have lost their individuality and most of their intelligence, including human speech. The Virals’ behavior, however, is anything but the zombie-like rambling expected from the typical post-apocalyptic horror story. Instead, their behavior is a mystery that slowly unfolds through the course of the novel.
Cronin tells a riveting tale, well paced and beautifully narrated. His prose is so poetic that it’s almost wasted on the horror genre. The books starts off slowly in a narrative style highly reminiscent of Stephen King’s thicker volumes. From there, it quickly escalates into a more literary style, closer to that of Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy. For example, rather than painting the fall of civilization in broad strokes, he transitions from the modern day to the post-viral world by telling the emotionally charged story of children being evacuated from cities under siege through the diary of one of the child.
With masterful strokes like this, Cronin paints rich pictures of the post-viral world and breaths life into each of the enormous cast of characters, occasionally punctuating the book with lapses into almost Bradury-esque narration:
“When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of earth with his old life locked in its hold; and when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing, and the moon in its arc no longer remembered his name, and all that remained was the great sea of hunger on which he floated forever – still, inside him, in the deepest place was this: one year. The mountain and the turning seasons, and Amy. Amy and the Year of Zero.”
At other times, Cronin skillfully tantalizes readers, deftly weaving horror into suspense that makes it all but impossible not to continue reading. He’ll start a chapter with a hook like, “Sara, in the Infirmary, was waiting for Gabe Curtis to die,” or end a chapter with a cliffhanger like “Which was just when Peter heard the shouts coming from the Main Gate, and all hell began to break loose,” leaving readers on the edge of their seats.
While some readers will be discouraged by the book’s eight hundred page length, it should be noted that The Passage reads like three entirely separate novels. The first two hundred hundred pages or so tell the personal story of Amy Bellafonte and the events leading up to fall of civilization. The remainder of the first half of the book reads like a combination of Stephen King’s The Stand and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, while the second half of the book reads like a combination of The Stand and Richard Matheson’s I Am legend. Thanks to these shifts in style and Cronin’s beautiful prose, the book’s pace never falters and the book’s eight hundred pages flies by.
The brilliant abruptness of the novel’s end will rock readers back on their heels and send them flipping through the book looking for answers. At first blush, it’s extremely poetic. However, while The Passage could very well stand on its own, it turns out that it’s only the first installment in a planned trilogy. In that light, this book’s ending is an epic cliffhanger. Unfortunately, given that it reportedly took Cronin more than three years to complete The Passage, the sequel is unlikely to hit shelves anytime soon.
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