I’m a huge fan of postapocalyptic fiction. From Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” to Pat Frank’s “Alas, Babylon,” there’s something irresistibly fascinating about stories that explore life after civilization’s end. And considering my equally strong affinity for good thrillers, Justin Cronin’s recently released, widely praised novel “The Passage” was a must-read.
A few misconceptions should be cleared up about this book. While “The Passage” has been billed as a “vampire epic” and a “horror story” it is neither. True, the plot revolves around a virus that turns humans into vampire-like creatures, but the creatures themselves are not the driving force of the book. This is a story about people – lifelike, vividly drawn characters and their struggles. What’s more, it contains dramatic descriptions of hope, love, and self-sacrifice that transform it into a new classic of the postapocalyptic genre.
“The Passage” begins in the near future, as scientists conduct biological experiments on death-row criminals in the hopes of developing a new super-soldier formula. As one might expect, the experiments go awry – leading to the creation of twelve inhuman killing machines (nicknamed “virals”). Completely unaware of the imminent crisis is Wolgast, an FBI agent assigned to the custody of the mysterious girl Amy. Amy displays an uncanny ability to “know” things, including secrets about the virals themselves. When the virals inevitably escape, Amy and Wolgast are thrown headfirst into a world-ending conflict.
The book then jumps forward 100 years – a seemingly abrupt shift, but a necessary one. The few surviving humans have crowded into elaborate walled compounds. An army of guards has been established to fend off the nightly predations of the virals (as well as the humans they have “turned” into new virals). Within the walls of one compound – known only as the Colony – a small group of friends emerges. Each of these characters is well developed, contributing to the immersive feel of the book. Quiet leader Peter is joined by warrior-women Sara and Alicia, engineer Michael, and several others. It quickly becomes clear that the Colony is in danger – the ancient batteries powering the city’s lights (used to repel the virals) are losing their ability to hold a charge, forcing swift action. When Amy eventually reenters the picture, a brutal chain of events is set in motion. Through a series of increasingly intense battles, Peter and his companions are forced to confront both a legion of virals and the demons within themselves.
This all sounds like the stuff of pulp fiction or campy horror. And in some ways, it resembles a mashup of “City of Ember” and “I Am Legend.” (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!) Halfway into the book, I found myself thinking this would be yet another piece of forgettable postapocalyptic entertainment (Guillermo del Toro’s “The Strain”, anyone?). But Cronin – an award-winning writer, and a professor of English at Rice University – has a few tricks up his sleeve. Though the book is technically the first volume of a trilogy, “The Passage” is a self-contained tale that can be appreciated on its own merits. Deftly weaving together characters and narratives from both of the book’s timelines (modern-day and post-apocalypse), Cronin successfully crafts a story that is both unpredictable and fully believable. His action scenes are among the best of their kind – chock-full of dark, kinetic intensity. And although the book lags a bit midway through – it’s an 800-page volume – it quickly regains its energy and builds to a rousing conclusion.
Although spiritual elements are frequently present in postapocalyptic fiction, most of them revolve around characters complaining that “God has abandoned this world.” Notably, “The Passage” rejects this trend. In the closing chapters of the novel, the destructive rise of the virals is portrayed as a second Great Flood – and an openly Christian character promises that God is still working to heal the world and save the righteous. While not explicitly Christian, this positive view of divine Providence is highly gratifying, and offers a source of hope despite darkness. From a secular standpoint, the book contains highly positive messages about friendship, duty, and love. Wrenching scenes of self-sacrifice (most particularly Wolgast’s journey to protect Amy) are deeply moving, and affirm a moral code higher than utilitarianism. Throughout the course of “The Passage”, characters constantly lay their lives on the line for one another – even when doing so may result in a horrible death.
“The Passage” is definitely not for everyone. While the expected bloodshed isn’t pervasive, there are certainly moments of graphic violence. Characters are killed in a variety of bloody ways – but more disturbingly, Cronin frequently cuts away before an imminent encounter, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the details before discussing the gory aftermath. Infrequent uses of strong language and mild suggestive content (generally PG-13 material) are also present throughout. (Of note: A subplot involving adulterous love is not portrayed in a critical light – in fact, the outcome of their relationship is positive.)
Although the book has its darker side, mature Christian fans of postapocalyptic fiction will likely enjoy “The Passage.” The book never embraces nihilistic despair, as so many others in the same genre do. Forget everything you’ve read claiming that this is a “vampire story”, because it isn’t one. It’s something better – a novel of humans, their struggles, and their nature.
A complex, brilliantly written postapocalyptic epic. One of the best of its kind.