Anyone bored or turned off by the recent “sissification” of the vampire, particularly in the form of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, would do well to read Justin Cronin’s The Passage. In this epic novel, we have a blend of two of my favorite genres, post-apocalyptic and vampire literature. While drawing from the best of each genre, he also makes interesting contributions to them in the process, weaving the two together into one engrossing text.
Vampirism in Cronin’s novel results from a failed military biological weapons experiment. The tests create twelve “master” vampires who spread the disease, potentially, around the world and through it gain mental control over anyone who possesses it. Survivors of the war between vampires and humans, those not affected by or in collusion with the vampires, huddle together in small communities or roving bands of soldiers. Cronin takes us into one of these smaller camps in northern California where the community goes about its daily chores, keeping the younger children in the dark about the existence of vampires until they are old enough and keeping the dark (and accompanying vampires) at bay by shining spotlights in and around the camp at night.
However, their world is turned upside down with the appearance of a young girl, Amy, who has wondered for years across the barren wasteland that was the former United States. The members of the camp can’t determine who, or what, she is or, more importantly, how the vampires have not harmed her all these years. They soon discover something about Amy that sends them on a perilous journey from their camp in northern California to a military base in Colorado to uncover her origins and, in the process, the origins of the disease that changed the world almost overnight. Along the way, they encounter a strange community of survivors, roving soldiers, and, of course, vampires.
At almost 800 pages long, Cronin’s novel takes some time to get through, although the last third or so of it is an intense page-turner. Though the first two-thirds moves at a slower pace, it allows him to create and delve into the post-apocalyptic scenario in which the narrative is set. At the same time, he spends a significant amount of time and attention on the process by which the vampires emerge and the identities of some of the original test subjects. The world left behind after the outbreak is something akin to those in The Book of Eli or The Road. Cities are burned out, game and produce in short supply (vampires prey on the former while radiation poisoning plagues the latter), and the survivors are under constant threat of depleted electricity. A few of them know that the lights will go out, but most don’t or either repressed their knowledge of this doomed reality.
The vampires in The Passage are complex characters, particularly the original twelve. The process by which they become vampires is heart-breaking and frustrating. The scenario is almost certainly an indictment on the way in which our government and people in positions of power treat the least of these, particularly the incarcerated. Chief among the original twelve, Babcock is one vicious vampire who should suddenly sky-rocket into the pantheon of famous fangers. The first encounter with him as a vampire at work is an unforgettable one.
One of the many strengths of Cronin’s novel, and the strength of all good vampire and post-apocalyptic fiction, is that it forces us to consider what it means to be human. Cronin does this by comparing and contrasting humans with vampires, but also by examining how humans act in the face of crisis and danger. He also problematizes the duality between vampires and humans by providing us with characters who transcend both groups, most notably Amy.
The Passage ends with a host of unanswered questions, but fear not, it’s only the first installment of a planned trilogy. Here’s hoping the sequels arrive sooner than later. Another rumor says that Ridley Scott has purchased the movie rights. It’ll be interesting to see how any filmmaker adapts this epic journey into one film. As it stand, it could easily support three different films on its own.