First, the good things:
There is NO Bella in this book. No misty eyed teenage romance. There is no soul-searching Lestat who laments his life in overlong paragraphs filled with purple prose. There is no erudite Count with a cape. No Victorian damsels in flimsy nightgowns and heaving bosoms. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the “vampires” are the result of a military genetic experiment gone horribly wrong and ultimately, out of control. They are vicious, nasty, virtually unstoppable and very very hungry. The first 250 pages of The Passage are the best fiction I have read this year.
Now the bad:
Unfortunately, the book is 766 pages long. With two sequels on the way. The novel covers over 1000 years. The first section follows modern day events. A military/ scientific expedition in South America captures a jungle virus and takes the secret to a lab for study. They discover the virus increases strength in test monkeys and prolongs their lifespan. The government hatches plans to create a Super Soldier. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is put on special assignment with the military to bring “volunteer test subjects” from death row prisons across America to be infected with the virus. But when Wolgast is ordered by his military superiors to capture a 10 year old girl, Amy, and deliver her to the lab, he rebels. The army hunts them down and Amy is taken to the lab to be tested. Then, the world goes to hell.
Twelve of the infected creatures escape the lab and overnight destroy the entire military installation. Wolgast and Amy barely escape and spend the next several years living in isolation. Then … one day there is a brilliant explosion to the west. Amy is blinded by the nuclear blast, and Wolgast slowly dies of radiation poisoning.
The book then jumps 1000 years in the future. The creatures (called Virals or Jumps) have wiped out most of the human population. Ninety per cent of infected humans die – ten per cent become Virals themselves.
What follows is an alternately entertaining, horrific, tedious and ultimately, frustrating apocalyptic story of the human survivors and their civilization. This is where author Justin Cronin falls woefully short of his goals. Having published two short modern and very literary novels, Cronin branches into territory usually reserved for such “inferior” writers as Stephen King, Robert McCammon and Richard Matheson. When “serious” writers stoop to write horror or science fiction – genre fiction! – the result is usually well-written crap.
Several years ago we got the novel Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrel, an old fashioned English novel about magic and evil. The literary world loved it … heaped praise upon it and claimed that it “redefined the horror novel.” It sure did – it redefined the horror novel as tedious and stodgy. The Historian was also forced upon us as a “brilliant re-working of the vampire legend.” The only brilliant thing about the book was its ad campaign. The book was literary sawdust. Remember when Norman Mailer (a literary giant, just ask him) claimed he could write a great mystery novel, and we got Tough Guys Don’t Dance? If you actually finished that book, your place in heaven is assured. Those of us going to hell will probably have to reread it for eternity.
There are sections of The Passage, and I mean dozens of pages, that beg to be skipped. Cronin often forgets he is NOT writing a mainstream novel where nothing is supposed to happen. He has chosen to write a genre novel for money … and of course, he can make it better than those popular writers because, after all … he is a serious novelist.
If you really want to read this kind of story, I recommend 2009’s The Strain, with a similar story and sweep (now a TV event on FX) or how about two all-time apocalyptic classics: The Stand by Stephen King and Swan Song by Robert MacCammon. Those two pulp writers managed to write a couple of horrific novels that are everything The Passage isn’t … great.
For all its posturing (and intellectual promotion among the literary elites) The Passage is not a bad novel, just not a good one. I’m betting the Hollywood movie will be better than the book.