When I first heard word of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, I was excited.
Who wouldn’t be? No less that Stephen King himself, who had gotten his influential mitts on an early copy, had rhapsodized about it. He seemed to think that The Passage was the perfect antidote to Twilight. He thought that Twilight was ruining horror and The Passage might breath light back into an ailing genre.
I looked up Cronin’s bona fides. Graduate of the Iowa Writers’ workshop, check. Winner of fancy lit awards like the Pen/Faulkner, check. Receiver of a record-breaking advance for the most anticipated vampire novel (soon to be a trilogy) in years, hell yes check. An English professor, check. I read a few bits online that the publisher planted in order to foment interest; they looked good. I barely knew anything about it, but I was excited. Horror, my first love in books, had lately been a depressing endeavour. This might be it, I thought. At long last there might be an heir to the throne of The King. The King, of course, being Stephen, that fabulous dark mage of storytelling.
The day it dropped, I was there. It was a very large book, but that was to be expected. It takes a big book to make that big splash. The first think I noticed when I picked up the book: the cover: a pedestrian shot of a dark, snowy forest. Okay, I think. Perhaps they were under a bit of a deadline. This is a business, after all.
So on I read. I then noticed the font was Times New Roman, which is fine, but often the first and laziest choice. Again I think: perhaps a deadline? The beginning worked. It’s an introduction to Amy, the main character. Amy’s mother, down on her luck, a prostitute, and a murderer, has given Amy away to an orphanage. Amy, who is called “the one who walked in, the first and the last and the only, who lived a thousand years”, is clearly the pivotal character in the trilogy.
The first cracks began to appear. A statue of a comically monstrous creature – steroid muscles, fangs, claws – is seen by a science expedition into a Bolivian jungle. Soon after, the expedition is ambushed by bat-monsters. Strangely cartoonish for something that was supposed to breath new life into horror. Twelve inmates, along with Amy (abducted by the feds), are given an experimental serum that enhances strength and immunity. The inmates turn into terrifying monsters (who don’t really resemble vampires at all) and escape, killing everyone in their way. The world breaks under the onslaught of the sort-of vampire plague, and Amy and a federal agent named Wolgast escape into the mountains.
This was all decent and exciting writing. I wasn’t reading compulsively, but it was good.
In the next section, the novel jumps ninety-two years into the future and the writing plummets downwards through several decades of proficiency. It’s a mess: a fortress guarded by ultraviolet lights, a world full of vampire monsters, a human civilization organized into an uninspired FEMA-seeded colony, and vampire leaders with psychic powers. Amy hears the voices the original twelve vampires in her head, but all they say are who am I who am I and I am Babcock I am Carter. And why is Babcock the name of the main monster? Most children wouldn’t make it through elementary school with a name like Babcock. There’s no ephemeral flavour of evil in the word Babcock.
It got worse. One character waits in one place for over ninety years for Amy and her friends to arrive, because she knew they were coming. Characters mysteriously commit suicide in order to save others, as if some voice told them to do it. To me, these events were not mysterious, but evidence of lazy plotting, as if a very visible writer’s hand were descending from the clouds and adding and subtracting people as he saw fit.
After I read it (and then in a fit of disgust left it in a bus-stop) I would occasionally wander into bookstores to check out this publishing sensation. Each time I went, the top three spots in the bestseller rack were taken by the Stieg Larsen books. The Passage was somewhere far below. I don’t think it’s done nearly as well as hoped. I don’t think it should.
In October, 2012, The Twelve will be released. It’s the sequel to the passage, part II of the trilogy, and I probably will read it. It will go back to the beginning of the plague, in Denver, and cover a few details not mentioned in the first book. It will hop back and forth from that point, to the apocalyptic part almost a century in the future, and will shed more light on the civilization one thousand years in the future, where everything has been resolved in one way or another. I will read it because I’ll be afraid that if I don’t, I’ll have missed something good, and I will thus be dammed to disappointment.
My problems with this series: The premise is science-heavy, and the science is not adequately explained. Anything not explained in that minimal way is defined as mysterious divine providence in the vein of King’s The Stand, from which The Passage borrows heavily. The writing is decent, but when you need good writing the most, the skill-level drops and the reader is left with nothing but runaway trains and bomb threats. There is a mythos in this book, but it’s nothing compared to Stephen King, George RR Martin, or even Battlestar Galactica, which – in terms of future/past events, apocalyptic scenarios, and ‘the Twelve’ original antagonists – is more similar to The Passage than the author may care to admit, although The Passage lacks Battlestar Galactica‘s clever combo of classical allusions and modern metaphors.
There has yet to be a great horror writer as good as Stephen King, or even someone who, although he or she may not be the same, can take up a king’s duties and responsibilities. This trilogy is not even close. I may be pilloried because my standards are high, but for the amount Cronin is getting, the standard should be sky-high. So I will wait, and stand guard. For what, I don’t know anymore, but I will wait.