Justin Cronin's The Passage

"These are not your teenage daughter's vampires. They do not sparkle, they do not look like underwear models. These are the real vampires. These are what the legend is based on. They are a biological reality. They're people infected with a terrible virus. And infected with virus so terrible that in fact they - what's the percentage - eat nine of their victims and then leave another one infected to perpetuate the clan."

- Justin Cronin, author of The Passage, during an NPR Interview, August 24, 2010

When I first heard about Justin Cronin's novel The Passage, I was intrigued by its capsule summary - essentially a move away from the brooding vampire looking for the right lady to fall in love with. This was a return the vampire as a predator. When I heard this description I thought of Richard Matheson's 1954 vampire novel I Am Legend. This turned out to be a good comparison as it turns out as both works deal with scientific explanations for the vampire legend and deal with the collapse of our civilization as a result of vampires returning. At a future point I will be sure to review Matheson's work as well.

It is difficult to review The Passage without delving into some of the plot but I will stay clear of major spoilers. 

The Passage begins a few years in "the future" (around 2016, so it will not be the future much longer). The novel starts slowly, getting us used to the setting and the protagonists. One of Cronin's strengths is providing strong characterizations and motivations - the characters are very human, with their own desires, imperfections, motivations, etc. One of the main characters we follow is FBI Agent Wolgast. We observe him persuading a death row inmate to provide in a secret government research program. We learn this program is designed to end disease and grant immortality. Given this is a book about an America overrun with vampires you can guess how well that goes.

Wolgast is tasked with delivering a young girl, Amy, of no known family, to this research program. He begins doing so but begins feeling remorse - we learn he was briefly a parent whose daughter died at a very young age. 

Of course the government eventually loses control of their research facility and they wind up having created a dozen vampires out of death row inmates who in turn create more vampires. Amy too is infected but she is somehow different from "the Twelve". 

The book then takes us through an America that rapidly disintegrates under the face of this viral infection. The vampires, who are referred to by a variety of names, are extremely strong. They are able to make enormous leaps. They kill nine out ten victims, saving the tenth to become a new vampire. They are very tough to kill, with their skeletons toughening to provide armor, with just a tiny opening over their hearts where they are vulnerable. And they really dislike bright lights.

The plot goes on to follow a girl that is taken by FEMA to a colony set up to survive the collapse of civilization. Surrounded by very high fences and bright spotlights it is designed to be safe from vampire attacks. The plot moves forward nearly a century, showing the descendants of those who formed the initial colony (along with the girl who we followed to this colony, now extremely old). We learn about the society that has formed, the unusual way they raise their young, the various occupations they have. The need to always patrol the wall at night and to kill any vampires that approach.

Circumstances force a group of characters on an expedition outside the colony where they begin learning what fate befell the rest of country and learn about the origins of the vampires, leading to a climactic confrontation with one of the original Twelve vampires.

I've avoided going deeply into the plot to avoid spoilers but to be honest, even if I did the joy is in the experience of reading the novel vs. finding out "what happens next". As I mentioned, Cronin excels at creating believable characters who have more than one motivation - who often have conflicting motivations. He employs a variety of narrative techniques - journals, 3rd person narration, newspaper articles, academic articles from a rebuilt world a thousand years after the collapse, etc. The unabridged audiobook makes use of multiple narrators depending on what sort of narration is being employed.

As a gamer it is especially interesting observing the culture that Cronin creates in this survivor colony, a colony that, as far as they know, might be the last living humans. They are not "primitive" per se, but they have a difficult time conceiving what the world was  like before the collapse of civilization. They still have knowledge of technology but they lack any real ability to manufacture, tending to therefore use crossbows instead of firearms. When they need new electronic equipment they tend to scavenge what they need from the ruins around them. It begins to become an issue as to how long they can keep the lights going - and what will happen if they reach a point they can no longer do so. For anyone seeking inspiration for a post-apocalyptic game that has not totally forgotten the technology of the past, this is an excellent resource. It is also a good resource on getting inspiration for a lone settlement in a hostile wilderness, whether that wilderness is inhabited by vampires or orcs.

The vampires of The Passage are interesting to observe. In many places they seem little more than animals, motivated solely by the desires to feed or procreate. But in others, we get the sense there is something more. Cronin does not provide all the answers as this is the first book in a trilogy, but I welcomed the return to vampires whose interest in humans is not in falling in love but rather as a source of food.

There are some reviews that indicate a lot of commonality with Stephen King's writing. I think this is a bit overstated, though I do see the point. Both King and Cronin excel, in my opinion, at creating compelling characters, both protagonists and antagonists. And there is a high level similarity to King's The Stand, which dealt with the collapse of civilization due to a superflu, and 'Salem's Lot, which dealt with old school vampires. I'd say King revels a bit more in "horror" than Cronin does. With 'Salem's Lot you can really sense the strong influence that the old EC horror comics had on King. With Cronin I don't quite get that same love of primitive horror. That's not at all a bad, thing, just a difference between them. Cronin's style is a very engaging one, one which caused me to reread it shortly after my first reading of it.

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