Published 2010 766 pages
Summary (from the book jacket)
Deep in the jungles of eastern Colombia, Professor Jonas Lear has finally found what he's been searching for - and wishes to God he hadn't.
In Memphis, Tennessee, a six-year-old girl called Amy is left at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and wonders why her mother has abandoned her.
In a maximum security jail in Nevada, a convicted murderer called Giles Babcock has the same strange nightmare, over and over again, while he waits for a lethal injection.
In a remote community in the California mountains, a young man called Peter waits for his beloved brother to return home - so he can kill him.
Bound together in ways they cannot comprehend, for each of them a door is about to open into a future they could not have imagined. And a journey is about to begin. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man's darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human. And beyond.
The Review and an Audience with Justin Cronin
The Passage is the first foray for literary author Justin Cronin into the world of vampire fiction. Forget all your vampire expectations, when Cronin created his vampire populace he wasn’t thinking of Anne Rice’s sympathetic characters or Stephenie Meyer’s dreamy Edward Cullen, he had an altogether more scary vampiric vision in mind. Escaped from a secret US army weapons programme the twelve test subjects infected with the “vampire” virus retain little trace of their humanity. With super strength, great speed, a hard exoskeleton and rows of sharp teeth these insect-like killing machines soon destroy the entire population of America, infecting those that aren’t killed outright with the virus and creating 40 million ravenous monsters in the process. The end of the world is swift and bloody.
The Passage has a strong science fiction influence rather than being a straight up horror story. While the unending stream of death is horrific in its own way, the story doesn’t dwell on grisly, bloody death or slasher horror. Death is more a matter-of-fact occurrence, something that just happens when the world ends. The novel is initially set about 8 years into the future. The world is already a scary place with an unending war in the Middle East, terrorists, government checks and controls, and a nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan. In an astounding act of hubris the US government boffins try to unlock the secrets of eternal life but fail to contain the results – leading to a dead world.
The next timeframe in the novel is set 90 or so years after the viral event. Small pockets of humanity cling to life but it’s a hard existence with death lurking in shadows ready to snatch the unwary or unlucky at any time. Throughout both timeframes there is Amy, she was the last test subject and as a six year old she was infected with the virus but it didn’t turn her into a monster. It made her immortal and burdened her with the task of saving the world…
Finally there are snippets of text, presented as historical artefacts from the time of the infection, at the future date of 1003 A.V. These texts are few and far between but are perhaps the most provocative – hinting at a whole new world civilisation. Most of the book is presented as third person narrative but occasionally emails and journal entries crop up giving a first-person perspective on events.
The story is truly bisexual – written neither for women nor for men – it’s equally appealing to both sexes with a good mixture of male and female characters who all add to the narrative. In the same way the story is perfectly balanced between being character driven and action driven. Both characters and plotlines get equal treatment. Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, the story lives in a happy middle-ground between the two poles of literary and popular fiction. Literary and popular fiction shouldn’t be mutually exclusive but for some reason they usually are. The Passage manages to be both, delivering an intelligent, accomplished and satisfying read.
The Passage is a novel of epic proportions. At roughly 300,000 words it’s twice the length of the average fantasy book. All this extra page space gives the author plenty of space to develop his characters. Bad guys and good guys, major and minor characters, are all given equal treatment, their characters, histories and actions explored in detail. There are no one-dimensional bad guys (which is always something of an achievement in action based vampire fiction!) Cronin deliberately making the choice to treat his characters like real people rather than “plotline baggage handlers”.
The most basic idea for the story came from Cronin’s young daughter. She had looked at the covers of his previous (literary) books and judged that they were boring. She wanted him to write a story about a girl who saves the world. There had to be one red-headed character. And vampires. This was back in 2005 before the Twilight craze (so vampires weren’t an obvious choice for a pre-teen girl) and she picked vampires because they are interesting. Together they threw around some ideas and the ultimate result was The Passage. When asked if his daughter got a cut from the sale of the novel, Cronin quipped that she got a pony – and a college fund.
But did his daughter like the finished book? “She read it twice. That’s high praise from a thirteen year old girl.” While The Passage isn’t written for teenaged readers it isn’t an unsuitable book for them either. Cronin cites thirteen as the age when he himself started to read adult novels and feels that his novel would be suitable for readers of that age and upwards.
Back in 2007 the novel generated a huge amount of interest in publishing circles, ending in a bidding war for the publishing rights and a rumoured multimillion dollar book deal. By itself a rare occurrence in publishing these days. The film rights were swiftly sold to Ridley Scott, who has the option to make the film. Although Cronin is positive about The Passage’s chances of making it into film production he is the first person to point out that a novel of this length can not be squeezed into a 2 hour movie without substantial changes. He seemed fairly relaxed about giving up control of the story to Hollywood since he felt that the movie of The Passage should be its director’s vision of the tale, not his.
For all the hype and excitement about its publication initially Cronin was in not confident of the books reception with publishers, especially if the editors saw his name on the submission. As an established literary writer he didn’t want people to have preconceptions about the book. He submitted it under a pseudonym waiting to see what the publishing world’s reaction was, before revealing that he was the author.
There is an ambiguity to a lot of the characters and events in The Passage. In some ways the story has a number of biblical overtones but they never amount to anything solid. One of the earliest characters in the book is Sister Lacey; a nun who the author himself admits could be either “a true mystic or have the worst case of post-traumatic stress, ever.” Cronin wasn’t being coy. Even after finishing the story there are still many mysteries yet to be unravelled. Whether readers will ever have a full scientific explanation for the fantasy aspects of the story or whether they will have to be taken on faith remains to be seen.
The Passage is the first book of a trilogy so there is plenty of time for a full exploration of Amy and this mysterious apocalyptic world. This alone should be enough to make most readers want to continue onto the next book in the trilogy. A cliff-hanger ending combined with some curious references in the last chapter to the nature of Peter, one of the story’s main protagonists, seem superfluous by comparison.
Dedicated fantasy/horror genre fans may find The Passage’s ambiguity a bit woolly in contrast to the usual genre offerings where magic and miracles are a widely accepted everyday occurrence. Still this huge book is an engrossing read and well worth the risk of RSI that carrying around such a weighty tome night and day until its finished entails.
So does the book live up to its hype? For the most part, yes. Stephen King isn’t lying in his cover quote when he says, “Read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”
LoveVampires Review Rating:
About the Author
Born in New England, Justin Cronin is the author of Mary and O’Neil, which won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize, and The Summer Guest. Having earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Cronin is now a professor of English at Rice University and lives with his family in Houston, Texas.
Editor’s note: Justin Cronin visited my home town on his book tour and I caught a Q&A session with him which is where all the background to the book and his comments comes from.
Find out more about The Passage at the book’s website: