Saturday, January 22, 2011

The PASSAGE by Justin Cronin - Reviewed by Gary Carden

The Passage by Justin Cronin
New York: Random House
$27.00 - 766 pages

For quite some time now, the literary genre known as “science fiction/horror” has been undergoing radical changes. The “creatures of the night,” be they zombies, vampires or werewolves, have been transformed into either (a) terrifying creations (“Dracula 2000” and its clones) or (b) pouting Vanity Fair teenagers on steroids (“Twilight”). Bela Lugosi’s bats and cloaks are laughably out of fashion while today’s menacing creatures, endowed with astonishing powers, are running amok. Many critics of modern horror literature feel that the real, innate terrors of our modern science and technology require a more appropriate folklore - one that combines science and myth. For example, science fiction/horror classics like I Am Legend.

Frankly, this horror fan is feeling some nostalgia pangs. I am too old to be frightened (or aroused) by the cast of the “Twilight Series,” which in my opinion may inadvertently succeed in adding yet another baneful ingredient to the vampire legend: in addition to garlic, mirrors, sunlight and crosses, I suspect that vampires can also be destroyed by saccharine. I yearn for the return of the nightmarish world of Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu.”

Which brings me to the epic (766 pages) vampire saga, The Passage. (Let me immediately note that Ridley Scott (director of Blade Runner, Alien and Gladiator) has already announced that he has begun filming this novel, and in a recent interview, Justin Cronin stated that The Passage is merely the first in a planned trilogy. Rest assured, the promotion for both Ridley’s spectacle and the anticipated sequels of this novel will be ... awesome.)

If there is an appropriate comparison for The Passage, it must be Stephen King’s The Stand (1978, revised in 1990 with a total of 1,153 pages) and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song (the 1987 winner of the Bram Stoker Award). All of these novels involve an epic trek (with mystical and apocalyptic motifs) to save the world.

Like a number of other vampire epics, The Passage opens with a covert project, originally designed to improve mankind, which goes awry. The original mission of Project Noah is to defeat disease and vastly increase intelligence, life expectancy and physical strength by stimulating the thymus gland (which becomes dormant or inactive in most human beings after adolescence). According to the theory expounded by the medical technicians in The Passage, the thymus - when injected with a virus (extracted from rabid bats!) will create astonishing improvements in humankind. In order to demonstrate the project’s benefits, Noah needs “guinea pigs” who are willing to be injected with a virus which will either kill them outright or convert them into a “new species.” The twelve selected participants are gleaned from a disturbing collection of murderers/sociopaths who are awaiting execution in maximum security prisons (mostly in Texas). Having given their compliance, the prisoners vanish into “The Chalet” which houses subterranean facilities, and which are staffed by a sinister mix of medics, military personnel, disconcertingly ruthless CIA agents and security guards.

In addition to the selected murderers, there is another participant: a six-year-old girl named Amy who is kidnapped, sedated and subjected to the same injections. Allegedly, the reason for Amy’s presence is to determine the effects of the serum on a pubescent subject. The result is the creation of a seemingly ageless child endowed with the power to "save the world."

Eventually, the bizarre and inexplicable behavior of the patients prompts the establishment of some rigorous security measures - especially after the patients begin to hang from the ceiling of their cells and whisper telepathic messages that suggest that they can function as a single unit - like bees in a hive. The inevitable disaster occurs. The patients overrun the Chalet, kill the entire staff and escape. In a period of thirty-two minutes, the world undergoes an apocalyptic revolution and author Cronin assures us that "life as we know it no longer exists."

At this point, The Passage abruptly moves forward almost a century, (With 500 pages of dense narrative ahead) into an embattled world filled with the relics of an earlier time: abandoned cities and interstates, rusting vehicles and millions of desiccated bodies (which the survivors refer to as “slims”). settlements of human beings still exist, but their numbers are few. Living in bunkers,they have adjusted to a daunting routine of constant vigilance.Their days are devoted to foraging and reinforcing their boundaries while their nights are spent patrolling the ramparts of their crude fortresses. High intensity lights burn all night.(Lights that are beginning to fail.) Their enemies are “the virals” who, in traditional vampire fashion, shun sunlight and bright lights, living mostly in dense forests and abandoned buildings. Like the inhabitants of a feudal city, the mortal survivors must defend themselves with swords and crossbows (although they occasionally discover caches of military weapons left over from “The Time Before.") Methods of communications, although forbidden, are being slowly rediscovered and individuals with a knack for repairing engines and electronic equipment are highly valued. The most protected area of the compound is "The Sanctuary" where the children are kept until they are adults.

The characters who live in this feudal compound are fascinating. Over the last century, their language and their customs reflect the rigors, anxieties and terrors of their existence. For example, there are numerous names for the virals, including “smokes” (their ability to appear and vanish suddenly) and “jumps” (referring to their astonishing speed when they attack). Watchers are constantly warned “You only get one shot” and they are trained to aim for “the sweet spot” which is the space immediately beneath the breastbone (the location of the thymus). Due to their stressful existence, all are haunted by nightmares (generated by the virals). The rigorous rules concerning the individual’s responsibility to the community often results in excessive feelings of guilt - a condition that results in frequent suicides.

The carnage in The Passage is excessive. To a certain extent the magnitude of violence in conjunction with the rapid passage of time seems to render character development irrelevant. No sooner do characters become interesting or endearing than they are vanquished like pieces removed in a chess game. This seems to be Cronin’s objective since his novel stresses preordained events. Individual lives are irrelevant and only exist (briefly) to move the action toward a predestined end. Whatever that end might be, it is never made evident in this novel.

The only abiding presence in The Passage is Amy. Time and again, when the characters are forced to abandon a refuge and venture into a bleak world fraught with danger, only Amy knows which direction they should go. Ageless (she seems frozen at 13 or 14), she is frequently (and infuriatingly) mute. When she finally speaks it is in order to provide information that is either vague or trivial. To tell you the truth, I didn’t like her much despite the fact that she is described as “the boat” on mankind’s journey to a safe haven.

Ah, but there fascinating episodes: a marvelous nightclub scene in Las Vegas with thousands of “slims” frozen around a roulette table; a terrifying train ride through viral country; an army base where movie night in the soldiers’ canteen is “Dracula,” and the fiery extermination of an underground viral bunker. Ridley Scott is going to stun us with special effects!

There is no question that The Passage is an entertaining journey with lots of “jumps” and “smokes.” Frankly I found that the “mystical themes”became a bit pretentious, silly and extremely vague, especially during the final chapters. Also the number of superhuman feats and miraculous escapes acquired a comic book quality that made the willing suspension of disbelief difficult to maintain. In addition, this novel is too long by about 300 pages. However, I’m looking forward to the movie.


  1. "The Passage" shifts gears several times with a little girl, Amy, who was also part of the government weapons experiment, at the center of a sprawling story that focuses on the survival of a colony of humans in California. Much of the story is about which survivors "pair" with which other survivors and which colonists don't survive attacks by the virals.

    I found "The Passage" to have some great cinematic scenes, but it just wore me down with the tedium of describing life in this bleak future. There were segments that were entertaining, but there were lots of plodding sections. "The Passage" left me wanting less. If you have loads of reading time you might find this one worth it...otherwise I would skip "The Passage" and use the same amount of time to try two or three other books.

  2. Interesting and thoughtful review. It's been too long since I read The Stand, although I did remember enough to recall some similarities.

    The Passage was truly enjoyable for me; between this and reading The Hunger Games trilogy, I had a rather post-apocalyptic summer.

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