The Passage by Justin Cronin

Random House
June 2010
ISBN 13 9780345504968
766 pages


It begins in the year 2017 with a young girl who is born of an affair between a waitress and a traveling salesman. The novel then turns to a scientific research mission, then to a chase-thriller and finally to a post-apocalyptic novel with civilization clinging to life as humanity protects itself against the virals of the night.  In many ways, Justin Cronin’s epic doorstopper, with its continual shifts in narrative voice, shouldn’t work. But these various methods of laying out the story give The Passage its backbone and authenticity as a chronicle of what might happen if Vampires were genetically engineered and run roughshod over humanity. 

The young girl in question, Amy Belafonte, becomes part of an experiment conducted by the US Government. The government is experimenting with a rare virus discovered in the jungles of Central America to help unlock the secrets of immortality. Also part of this vast experiment, dubbed Project Noah by the government, is a group 12 death row inmates used as test subjects. On one hand, the experiment works as the 12 inmates are found to have survived the experiments.  On the other, these scientists and the government did not heed the warnings set forth in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, for when playing at God, consequences ensue.  Those consequences are a bloodlust, strength, flight, toughened skin, and powers of the mind grafted onto men – killers, and the basest level of humanity – who were sentenced to die.

Fast-forward almost a Century (92 years to be exact, with the years counting as 92 A.V.), and humanity is something of a rare beast.  The virals, or vampires, have spread their clench on the world.  The original 12 have grown, bringing more infected under their sway with each of the original twelve serving as something of a hive-leader to those it has created.

While the early portions (about ¼) of the novel set the foundation for the new world, the remainder focuses on a stronghold in California where the people have been able to survive for the intervening 92 years since the original breakout.  Here Cronin focuses his story on a group of people born after the outbreak – our heroes Peter, Michael, and Alicia. In this compound, Cronin steps back from the shifting narrative of the first third of the book and slows down the pace, and while it may seem a stretch that such an abrupt shift would work, the opposite is indeed true.  By illustrating the daily life people of the barren United States have to endure, Cronin establishes a good slice of life and exactly what the stakes are for the world and more importantly, the people.

Enter into this compound a young teenage girl – the girl from nowhere. Peter soon feels the need to protect this girl and they discover that she did come from somewhere and a group decides to return her from whence she came – the US Government. It is here where the book becomes more of a road-journey as Peter and his companions encounter other, different humans surviving in ways unexpected, factions of the remnant Military, and the vampires themselves in rundown Las Vegas casino.

Cronin does many things very, very well throughout the novel.  The story is extremely evocative, each scene into which Cronin brings the reader, though different, is engaging and made feel like an invisible observer with these characters.

A novel this size and with this type of publicity doesn’t come without comparisons to the novels which came before it.  The most obvious comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand, after all, King did provide a prominent and positive blurb for the book. In terms of beautifully imagined desolation, the more fitting comparison for me would be Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize winner The Road. The virals/vampires themselves were reminiscent of the virally enhanced vampires in Richard Matheson’s landmark novel I am Legend or the ravenous zombies of the film 28 Days Later.

Another thing Cronin does very well is defy convention.  In many of these apocalyptic tales (think the previously mentioned 28 Days Later) whenever the remnants of a military unit are encountered, the military types turn out to be useless or borderline psychotic. I was very pleased to see Cronin go against this type.  Another surprise he revealed in the final third of the novel was a very effective – it was jarring to the characters and to me. 

Cronin has turned the Vampire somewhat on its rear with The Passage.  He’s written a smart, addictively-page-turning blockbuster, a novel that embraces some of the tropes of both post-apocalyptic and vampire genres in a fresh manner. It is a novel with heart and intelligence that deserves the many accolades it has thus far received. The kicker here is that Cronin has two additional novels planned in this sequence. The Passage is the rare novel that has lived up to the prepublication hype and in many ways, exceeded it – one of the best books I’ve read in 2010.


Leave a comment