The Passage by Justin Cronin

I am not a fan of the vampire craze in today’s media, because I think that vampires are being horribly misused. Being bitten by a vampire should be a very bad thing, not simply the means by which one gets a fun superpower. If you want to write about vampires, you can do whatever the hell you want, really, as long as you think about why it is that you’re doing it. Vampires can be beautiful or they can look like monsters; they can have super-strength or they can turn into bats. None of that matters as long as some forethought is put into what these choices mean for the story and the ideas that are being written about.

So, with that said, I enjoyed Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Vampires clearly constitute a major part of the novel, but the book is not just a collection of worn out tropes from vampire fiction. The Passage explains the various aspects of its vampires (pseudo) scientifically, in a way somewhat similar to Richard Matheson’s treatment of vampires in I Am Legend. That’s not necessary to a good vampire story, but it can be fun if handled well. And I’m not saying The Passage is even all that realistic (it’s not), but the book sets up the laws of its own universe and then it obeys those laws, which is good enough for me. Along with the scientific explanation behind the vampires, there are also things in the book that can’t rationally be explained and are actually very supernatural. There’s a nice mix, actually, of science and the supernatural.

What I think is most important is that the book is not a rehashing (or even a subverting) of the traditional tropes and clichés associated with vampires. The book uses the idea of vampires to tell the story it needs to tell, and in doing so it takes things in a unique direction, without lingering on the fact that it is doing so.

The novel is ambitious in its scope, chronicling both the fall of our world and the rise of a new one. This might cause a few readers to feel disappointed when familiar settings and characters are established only to be abandoned, but that is pretty central to what Cronin is doing. Once we “jump” suddenly to the post-apocalyptic world, there is a real sense that we’ve lost something. The world we know — the one established in the first section of the novel, with references to familiar brands like Walmart and McDonald’s —is very clearly gone. If Cronin had started the novel after the world had already ended, the effect would not be the same. In other words, yes, it sucks and it’s jarring that the world that was established is completley gone: that’s the point.

If there is one weakness in the novel it definitely lies in its pacing. In the middle third of the book things… just… slow down. There are about a half dozen events and excursions that could easily have been compressed into two or three. Thankfully, things do pick back up a bit towards the end. Some people seem to dislike the ending more than I do, but I thought it was pretty satisfying. It did not wrap up every question, but it did have a certain degree of closure for the present adventure. Since there are two more books in the trilogy (or whatever it is — I’ve heard the books might not be strictly chronological) it remains to be seen what the significance will be of some of those seemingly unnecessary events in those middle sections.

Each section of the novel (there are twelve: eleven plus a postscript, which makes for a significant number in this particular story) begins with a quotation from Shakespeare or Wordsworth or some other Western literary giant. One could debate whether the quotations are appropriate or empty ostentation (I think they’re appropriate), but it is clear that Cronin is dealing with many of the same themes as these writers. I mean, yeah, obviously Cronin ain’t no Shakespeare. This isn’t the best novel of our time or the decade or the year. But the metaphors and literary devices in The Passage are not just added in after the fact (which, according to On Writing, is basically Stephen King’s modus operandi). They’ve been carefully worked into the story right from the start and they are essential to it.

The questions and themes I’m referring to are ones relating to life and death, the certain degree of isolation inherent in human experience, as well as the possibility for human connection and sympathy. They may seem like obvious themes, especially for a genre that deals explicitly with life, death, and “the undead,” but it is still very rare for a work in the genre to deal with these questions in an intelligent, mature, or original manner (which is why most works in the genre are rubbish). But The Passage actually does deal with those questions, and it actually does so relatively intelligently. I’m hoping that the future installments in the trilogy (or series, or whatever it is) are equally up to the task of expanding on those questions and thinking about them in new ways.

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