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Dracula meets The Road in Justin Cronin’s The Passage

I’m always a little uncertain as to whether repurposing print reviews as blog posts really works, but I’m going to make an exception for my review of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which appeared in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald.

As books go it’s a pretty improbable one: the first part of a massive, millennia-spanning vampire saga, moving from America a few years from now to a distant future in which the vampire menace has (or just possibly has not) been defeated, with extended detours to a vampire-ravaged future that’s equal parts The Road and The Stand (what is it with these big books and the definite article?).

But despite a few wobbles and some fairly heavy-handed pump-priming here and there, it’s also one of the most entertaining things I’ve read in a while. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it’s one of those “event” books that actually lies up to its hype, and well worth checking out.

If you’d like to know more you can visit the book’s website. Alternatively you might want to check out my piece, ‘Bloody Beauties: The Rise and Rise of Vampire Lit’, which appeared in The Australian Literary Review last year. And my review of The Passage is below:

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The Passage
Justin Cronin

A while back I was asked on radio when I thought the vampire sensation would burn itself out. I laughed, and said I thought it must surely be past its peak if we were talking about it on Radio National. After all, there’s nothing more fatal to anything with even a whiff of cool than being embraced by the mainstream.

A little less than a year later and it seems I couldn’t have been more wrong. Post the near-universal “meh” that greeted Stephanie Meyer’s companion novella, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, the Twilight phenomenon may have degenerated into women’s magazine fantasies about Rob and Kirsten’s romantic entanglements, but elsewhere the undead are doing very nicely, thank you. On television True Blood’s third season premiered to ratings not seen on cable since The Sopranos, and while critical acclaim has eluded them, there are a host of True Blood/Twilight knockoffs in production. Likewise Dead in the Family, the most recent installment in The Southern Vampire Mysteries series that inspired True Blood sits at the top of the bestseller lists around the world.

And if they weren’t enough, now there’s Justin Cronin’s mammoth summer blockbuster, The Passage, the first part in a projected trilogy that was reportedly bought for a staggering US$3.75 million by Random House and is already being developed into a movie by Ridley Scott and his Gladiator co-writer, John Logan.

Not bad, especially for a man whose previous books, a critically-acclaimed novel and award-winning book of short stories were the sort of minutely-observed tales of quiet intensity set in Maine fishing camps that usually set an author up for a life of quiet obscurity teaching creative writing in a minor American university.

Like Stephen King’s The Stand, to which Cronin’s novel owes more than a little, The Passage inverts the usual notion of the vampire as something dreadful on the fringes of perception, and imagines a future where vampires rule. In King’s novel it is a bioweapon that causes the plague that writes humanity’s death warrant; in The Passage it’s a scientific project hoping to use a virus to cure disease and prolong life.

Thankfully, given its sheer size, the novel is broken up into twelve sections of varying length. The first few, which take place in America a little less than a decade from now, depict the events leading up to the release of the virus.

These first sections are undeniably creepy, conjuring a growing and almost palpable sense of unease as its elements are lined up: the doomed expedition to the jungle to recover the virus, the secretive project to develop a usable form, the group of death row inmates assembled to serve as subjects, the young girl co-opted by the program, the stirring darkness of the first, and most powerful of the subjects, Patient Zero, and his psychic subjugation of one of the reformed sex offenders recruited to work as attendants in the program.

Ironically, much of what makes these sections so unsettling is the way they embed the story in a larger, and more unsettling reality. Unlike the sections after the Fall, they inhabit a world on the fringes of contemporary society, a place where children are abused, and there is more than enough human evil and alienation without going looking for evil of a more supernatural bent.

These early sections might make a powerful novel in their own right, in particular the latter parts, after the virus is released, and Wolgast, the FBI Agent formerly charged with recruiting subjects for the program escapes with the girl, Amy, to the mountains to try and wait out the destruction in the cities and towns.

The narrative then jumps almost a hundred years into the future. The old world is gone, replaced by a barren, silent planet where isolated communities eke out a diminished existence behind high walls and powerful lights, trying and often failing to stay one step ahead of the Virals outside.

For those born into these societies, there is little to look forward to. Those who tend the machines know the end is coming when the last power runs out, and the Virals invade. But that changes when Amy, aged by only a few years despite the passage of more than nine decades, walks unarmed into one colony, and leads a small group of young men and women to set out to set off across a now-ruined landscape in search of a way of breaking the virals’ stranglehold on the Earth.

If much of the above sounds familiar it should, for in a very real sense The Passage is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a book, assembled from offcuts from sources ranging from The Stand to The X-Files, The Road and Dracula (to which it owes not just its vampires, or its use of documents such as diaries and emails to tell its story, but also its fascination with the tension between ancient, atavistic evil and modernity). Even the Virals themselves, with their rows of teeth, hypertrophic musculature and loping, apelike gait are a direct appropriation of Spiderman’s nemesis, Venom.

This sort of cannibalization has been part of the vampire tradition for almost as long as it has existed, each new entrant incorporating elements of its predecessors. Occasionally that process is intertextual, as in Elizabeth Kostova’s grinding pastiche of Dracula, The Historian, but more often these days it is ironic, the mythology internalized and deployed to comic or other effect, as it is when characters in films such as Fright Night or the more recent Lesbian Vampire Killers draw upon knowledge gleaned from movies to defeat vampires in “real” life.

Sadly this sense of play is seldom evident in The Passage. But in a way that hardly matters. For while Cronin’s control of his narrative occasionally falters, and there are moments where the writing strains towards a lyricism it cannot sustain, the book as a whole is never less than disgracefully, compulsively enjoyable. Indeed so addictive is its allure that my chief reaction, even after almost 800 close-set pages, was disappointment that the sequel is not already available.

Reproduced with the permission of The Sydney Morning Herald.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kym #

    your headline: “passage” not “pasage”

    August 4, 2010
    • Ah yes – that would be the attention to detail for which I’m famous.

      August 4, 2010
  2. Karen Dansey #

    Absolutely loved this book – was a bit slow in the beginning but once into the gist of the story did not want to put it down. The ending asks the question which group were going to survive needless to say I am now eagerly waiting on the next installment.

    November 5, 2010
  3. miscmum #

    I finished late last night and was a little disappointed, sad to say. I think the narrative arc was ambitious and he does pull it off (the virals racing up the mountain in the end did remind me of the end to Dracula), however it came at a cost: I felt some characterisations could have been better.

    I say all this with a big of a tongue in my cheek, though, because ambivalent feelings aside, I would like to see what happens in the sequel, when it comes out.

    Did you see this io9 piece?!5605835/justin-cronin-explains-his-vampires-in-the-passage-and-drops-spoilers-for-the-next-book

    March 5, 2011

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  1. Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’: a book to bring a nation to its knees (in every sense of the word) | Baker's Daughter Blog

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