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The International Writers Magazine: Book Review

The Passage by Justin Cronin
Nick Lewandowski

Vampires have finally gotten their teeth back. Rows upon rows of them, in fact. The Passage is the first novel in author Justin Cronin’s planned post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy – The Twelve is due out in 2012 and The City of Mirrors in 2014.


The setup is simple enough. The US Military has discovered a virus deep in the South American jungle, one that turns its victims into superhuman killing machines. Superhuman killing machines that have great big teeth and a pronounced sensitivity to sunlight. Perhaps predictably, the powers that be decide to weaponize it. To do this they will need test subjects, of course, and they happen to find an abundant variety on the death rows of the nation’s prisons. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is assigned the task of rounding up the chosen inmates and securing their consent to participate in the project. He acquires twelve with little trouble. Then a strange thirteenth assignment lands on his proverbial desk: a little girl named Amy.

Amy, incidentally, is no ordinary child. The daughter of a prostitute, she is unusually perceptive and intelligent. Remarkable enough that when a caretaker brings her to the zoo, the animals start taking behavioral cues from The Omen. Nonetheless, Wolgast and the girl (whose own daughter is dead) form a tentative bond. Just as the FBI agent begins to have second thoughts about turning Amy over to his superior’s clutches, however, her toothy predecessors escape. A global apocalypse promptly ensues.

Cronin’s story picks up about a hundred years later. Humanity has been reduced to a near medieval state, living in small fortified colonies surrounded by banks of bright lights. Crossbows and swords have replaced firearms as weapons of choice. Amy, however, remains little changed. When a scouting party of survivors stumbles upon her, she is still a young girl.

The Passage is an audacious novel – absolutely epic in scope. It takes serious chutzpah for an author to eliminate most of his major characters a third of the way through a 700-page novel. Fortunately, Cronin has got serious writing chops as well as chutzpah. Prior to The Passage, he wrote literary fiction (his 2001 novel Mary and O’Neill won the Stephen Crane Prize from the Book of the Month Club), and those talents are on display throughout. His characters are rich and well-drawn, even those we meet only briefly. There are moments of transcendent imagery. At times Cronin even toys with narrative structure, notably in the series of emails that relates the discovery of the virus and long passages from personal journals that bridge major gulfs in time.  Finally, there are digressive scenes that help flesh out the character of his grim world. Perhaps the most effective of these is the one during which a group of soldiers watches Tod Browning’s Dracula, with Bela Lugosi as the Count. The narrator muses that “at times the movie seemed almost like an instruction manual […] an account of something that had actually happened.” He internalizes this, and occasionally compares events unfolding around him to those of the film. This may seem like a small, almost insignificant detail to some, but it is emblematic of the care with which Cronin has assembled his narrative. These tiny threads of texture are what elevate the novel above many of its sci-fi/horror brethren.

Simply put, The Passage is a vampire apocalypse told in grand literary style. Though it is overlong in places – at times we could do without some of the more elaborate bits of backstory – the novel remains utterly compelling throughout.

As of this writing Fox 2000 has paid $1.75 million for movie rights to The Passage, and Ridley Scott is slated to direct. Those foolish enough to miss Cronin’s vampire opus in print will therefore have the opportunity to sink their teeth into it on the big screen.

© Nick Lewandowski
Jan 8th 2011

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