Author: Justin Cronin

2010, Ballantine

Filed under: Fantasy, Sci-Fi (vampires)

[Minor spoiler alert: this book came out last year, and this review contains a few small details from relatively late in the book.]

I don’t know why I keep believing that a modern vampire book could be good. I believed it when The Strain came out, and I believed it about The Passage, too. Color me shamed, because that’s twice I’ve been fooled.

The Passage is not a good book. It’s a literary author’s attempt to write a genre novel without much experience or skill at writing plot. If plot holes or inconsistencies make you mad, avoid it. If however, you need a single book to get you through a weeklong vacation, it just came out in paperback and, at nearly 800 pages, it’ll give you some bang for your buck.

Let’s get into the details.

First of all, it’s a poorly structured book. The first 300 pages have to do with the origin of the vampire virus, as if Cronin is trying to convince us that vampires could really happen. It’s not a poorly written section, but it’s entirely tangential to the bulk of the story, except for a few comeback details—like the fact that the original experiment victims become the elders of the vampire society. Still, Cronin wastes far, far too many words on this, and then he flashes forward ninety years and wastes another 200 pages describing the fortress that a smallish group of humans have built to keep the vampires out.

Cronin sold the movie rights to this book before it even came out last year, which made me wonder, as I read, how much time the movie version would need to tell the same amount of story. My guess: the first 500 pages of book would translate to roughly 20 minutes of screen time. Here, let me try to do it in a paragraph:

The army tried to make supersoldiers, but instead created a virus that turns people into vampires. The vampires are mean (think I Am Legend), and the U.S. bombed itself to try to destroy them but that didn’t work and almost everybody died or turned into vampires. Now a few dozen people are barricaded in a small fort, where they give each other weird titles and capitalize everything. The bright lights that keep the vampires away are slowly failing. Then they find a young half-vampire girl and pick up a radio signal that says to bring her to Colorado and six of them go to take her there. Well, more than six at first but the others die fast, so we’ll say six.

That’s the plot of literally the first 500 pages. While those pages have their moments, they’re not good enough to justify the massive word count, and it becomes pretty clear that Cronin doesn’t know what to include in his story and what to leave out.

Even in the third section, the novel’s best by far, Cronin often skips compelling scenes and details, in fact he skips weeks and even months of the trip to Colorado with journal entries. (He skips an entire relationship with the entry, “Day 49 I have decided to marry Hollis Wilson.“)

Even more frustrating: when the vampires overwhelm the humans’ fortress in a big climactic fight, Cronin suddenly ends the chapter this way:

“Sign, we have sign! Holy shit, they’re everywhere!”

But he spoke these words into the darkness. The lights had all gone out.

The next chapter begins:

The meeting was called for half-day, under a sky bulging with rain that would not fall.

That’s right, Cronin skips the pivotal vampire fight and catches you up with a tactical meeting where somebody stands up and blandly tells us what happened. Just a bit earlier, Cronin was willing to include the full text of the One Law of the fort that gets destroyed (it goes like this “We, the HOUSEHOLD, in order to safeguard DOMESTIC ORDER; provide for the EQUAL SHARE; promote …” for four pages).

Lopsided structure is not the only magilla in this gorilla, there’s also the problem that The Passage is not believable. That might sound weird, describing a book about vampires in post-apocalyptic America as unbelievable. But since Cronin tries so hard to make his novel realistic, it stings ever more when he abandons every ounce of realism after writing himself into a corner.

For example, when the group stumbles into Las Vegas, they have no idea what Las Vegas is, or what casinos are, or gambling (despite the fact that they have cards)—but when they see the fake Eiffel Tower, they know that it belongs in Paris, France.

A more troubling episode: the six travellers stumble upon a 90-year-old Humvee, which their battery mechanic—who kept the fort lights running but has never seen a car—gets running. It takes him 19 days to fix the car, and on the 19th, the vampires arrive to kill them, just as they’re able to drive off in the nick of time, along with the half-vampire girl, who can sometimes call off attacking vampires with her mind, but this time can’t.

It’s a wretchedly disappointing scene, that not only breaks the rules of the material world in which it ostensibly takes place, but also the cardinal rule of satisfying action sequences, which states: “Thou shalt never take the shortcut.” But, since Cronin makes his vampires into supervillains, even well-armed humans have no chance against them, which means our heroes’ victories must be a series of miracles, each less believable than the last. Being saved by strangers with perfect timing, or stealing a train to get away just as the walls come crashing down—it gets old, no matter how many minor characters die for the sake of making it feel less perfect.

It’s even more annoying when Cronin keeps cutting away from certain doom—a viral standing over an unarmed human; a man about to mercy-kill a wounded woman who’s been in a coma for days—and then the next chapter features everybody hale and hearty, inexplicably alive. I mean that “inexplicably” literally: Cronin often doesn’t bother to explain how these people survive, instead shrugging off the latest miracle with a line like, “How they had survived the attack in the barn was nothing [they] could wholly explain.” That, friends, is the definition of a shortcut.

Underneath all these gripes, the real undoing of The Passage is that Cronin simply isn’t inventive enough to justify the length and depth of this massive novel. It starts with vampires, about as cliched a villain as there is, and never adds enough originality. They’re allergic to light, they suck blood. You’ve read this story before.

While Cronin writes not-terrible prose, it’s nothing to write home about (or, say, quote for this review). He’s good with characters in small numbers. That first 300-page section focuses primarily on one man, and his relationship with a girl in danger. The characters there are well done, even if the section itself is a cloying way to start a vampire book.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of The Passage is that the third act, the big adventure, is right in Cronin’s wheelhouse. There are few characters and more depth, solid episodes, one set piece that’s nearly great, and, let’s face it, the details of the Time Before (yes, he really capitalizes it) are best served up as brief flashbacks. Most of that third act is at least better than your average vampire book, except for Cronin’s incessantly miraculous plot, and a stupid ending that serves only to set up the sequels. Still, with better editing and a tighter frame, this might have been the excellent genre work it was purported to be.

As it is, The Passage would be a decent vacation book, if you’re a patient reader, you can look past lapses of logic, and you don’t mind meandering for several hundred pages. For most others, don’t fret if you miss it. It certainly wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Similar reads: The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro, for another books about boring vampires. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, for another overhyped book in bad need of an editor.