by Justin Cronin
Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
Justin Cronin's The Passage would be easy to lump in with countless other post-apocalyptic novels, falling somewhere between the literary, high-diction prose of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the hard science-fiction storyline of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. But, Cronin takes the pieces that work best from both ends of the spectrum and adapts them to suit his own predilections. In particular, he's able to develop complex familial themes and relationships, which can often take a backseat in genre fiction, but never at the expense of a tightly wound plot, one that rarely eases the tension over its 700+ pages.
Despite its appearance in many reviews of the book, don't let the word "vampire" fool you -- the creatures that humans become when exposed to the disease at the heart of The Passage are much worse than Count Dracula (a comparison that Cronin humorously plays with at one point, when several surviving human soldiers watch old film reels of the classic Bela Lugosi flick and hurl insults at the myriad inconsistencies in the film before abruptly being thrown into battle with the real deal). Cronin's descriptions of the creatures effectively inspire terror, as one pictures these super strong, nearly indestructible beings vaulting from limb to limb in the trees above, wanting nothing more than to tear any humans that they find limb from limb. The abject dread inspired by these monsters makes the likelihood of a protagonist making it to the next page alive seem increasingly precarious as the book goes on, and Cronin certainly doesn't hesitate to wrench favorite characters away at a moment's notice.
The biggest compliment I can give The Passage is that it explores ideas and themes of family in much more detail than I would have expected of a horror-thriller. The pseudo father-daughter relationship contained in the early sections of the book sets the tone for the rest of the plot: Agent Wolgast plays a huge role in Amy's life, providing her with the love and security she never got from her own father, orphan that she is. This is the same Amy who we see hundreds of pages later, wandering the desolation of America, and what propels her forward is Wolgast's sacrifice and her hope of reconnection with him, somehow. Similarly, other survivors of the plague are forced to create new familial bonds among themselves, both in the safe confines of the camp that they call home, as well as on the journey to Colorado with Amy in tow. And, without giving away too much, even the vampires themselves aren't as solitary and instinctually driven as they seem. Cronin takes evident delight in fleshing out these different bonds, putting them under strain, and seeing what actions these stresses elicit from his various creations.
I can highly recommend The Passage as a summer read. What elevates it above many other exercises in horror are the relationships that lie at the heart of all the characters' actions and decisions. Cronin's conceptions of what families look like after the unthinkable has happened, how they adapt to impossible circumstances, and the effects that love (or lack thereof) has on every single character are extremely well thought out and believable. But, don't let my focus on the familial threads of the plot put you off; these hundreds of pages fly by. This is a thriller, after all, and you're going to want to read another chapter before you try to fall asleep.