The Passage, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

6690798I first read The Passage back in 2011, not long after it had come out. You can read my original take here, but the short version is, I was blown away. This was Cronin’s first foray into the horror genre, and he was taking a big risk; not content with doing a simple horror story, he instead decided to create a horror epic, one in which the world ends and humanity’s very survival is at stake. That’s a gutsy move; the fact that he chose to make the novel about vampires even more so, given how vaguely weary so many people were/are of them. And if all that isn’t enough, Cronin ups his own difficulty by the sheer scope of what he’s attempting: he’s telling not only an apocalyptic tale, but a post-apocalyptic one as well, and beyond that, frames that post-apocalyptic tale with hints of a world yet to come looking back at that story as it unfolds (“unfolded,” perhaps?)

I never got around to reading the second book in the series, The Twelve; it wasn’t a lack of interest, just a matter of time. But with the third (and final) book in the series soon to come out, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up on the series, after I took the time to re-acquaint myself with Cronin’s world.

In most ways, The Passage holds up incredibly well. The opening third of Cronin’s novel sets up its characters wonderfully, creating a world and establishing its dynamics carefully, and often indirectly, with asides about major events, throwaway remarks about political situations, and more. It makes it all the more impressive when the book transforms into something wholly else midway through, becoming a post-apocalyptic tale that basically skips the apocalypse. It’s here, in the main thrust of the book, that Cronin’s tale really soars, for many of the same reasons that the beginning works so well – his ability to create characters, his knack for world-building that avoids exposition dumps, his gift for dialogue and complex interactions. Indeed, much of the joy of The Passage comes from realizing just how intricately Cronin has thought out his bizarre, fractured world; there’s a true sense of coming in halfway through the story, and Cronin’s willingness to trust the reader pays off beautifully. (That goes double for the hints about the “future” world that’s looking back on this one, which offers even more implications and hints.)

Cronin’s episodic plotting generally holds up nicely as well, although there are some aspects that show the hand of the author at work than I remember. The Passage is narratively tight to a fault at times; there’s a late-novel revelation about a particular viral (the book’s name for its bestial, horrific version of vampires) that feels a bit much, and at least one character’s collision with her past feels a bit out of nowhere. And yet, it makes for compelling drama, as Cronin allows the characters and their emotions to often drive the action beyond the mechanics of plot. Yes, he may put people where they need to be, but beyond that, it’s their emotions and reactions and drive what unfolds from there.

More than that, though, The Passage is effectively, genuinely scary, creating a rich version of vampiric lore that leads to some truly haunting moments, maybe none more memorable and disturbing than a series of nightmares that begins hitting everyone in a colony after a mysterious arrival. Cronin tailors each nightmare to individual characters, and that choice makes them all the more distressing, as we see reactions ranging from erotic to childlike, from mature to terrified and beyond. Those are matched every bit as well by some of his more “action” oriented sequences, which remind you when you least expect it of why these monsters are such a threat.

The Passage is gripping, fascinating stuff; if I’m more aware of a couple of small flaws than I was on the first read, that’s balanced out by reading it knowing that this is the first book in a trilogy. It’s more clear now that Cronin is both telling a compelling, complete story and setting up something larger, and that’s hard work; to do so while creating a world, interesting characters, an epic scope, and make it all scary? That’s almost unthinkable. But he succeeds, and then some; now, let’s see how he handles the dreaded “middle book” syndrome with The Twelve.


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