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The Passage US cover

The Passage US cover

The Passage is the first entry in a planned trilogy of post-apocalyptic vampire novels, and, if that's all you've heard about it, you may well begin to wonder whether we really need more of that kind of novel. Ridley Scott certainly seems to think we need more post-apocalyptic vampire movies, as attested by the astonishing seven-figure deal he had signed with Cronin even before the publication of The Passage, but, after making my way through the first 100-year leg of this generation-spanning epic, I'm not persuaded that Cronin has taken the right approach to reinvigorate the glutted market of undead apocalypses. If you've managed to escape all the buzz surrounding this if nothing else thoroughly marketed bestseller, as a piece of (post-/)apocalyptic fiction, The Passage does make for a fairly unusual case, coming neither from within the community of speculative fiction writers, nor from the world of the more mainstream thriller/bestseller. Instead, the novel can boast of the finest literary pedigree, its author safely ensconced in the academy as a professor at Rice, and with both an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in hand: for such a relatively new writer, one can't get much more "literary" than that. Yet The Passage differs considerably from those other "literary apocalypses" we've been seeing so many of recently. Cronin's novel works as a supremely readable, gripping enough thriller, but fails to satisfy either as an innovative piece of speculative extrapolation, or as a thoughtful apocalyptic parable. It bears little resemblance to Cormac McCarthy's stripped-down exercise in the apocalyptic, for instance, or even something like Jeanette Winterson's cyclical past/future history The Stone Gods, or David Mitchell's more expansive Cloud Atlas. In other words, if you're looking for A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Road, you'll probably be disappointed; The Stand, probably much less so.

Naturally, I can't provide a detailed plot summary for a tome that clocks in at just under 800 pages, but in a sense I don't need to provide one, because you already know this story well enough by now: the U. S. government begins experimenting with a mysterious new virus that turns humans into frenzied vampires; something goes horribly, horribly wrong; and civilization as we know it ends. But soon enough that ragtag band of survivors—here their near descendants—resolve to fight their way to a better future across a blasted landscape and against all the odds. In the second chapter we even get a proper Hollywood prologue in which a military-sponsored research expedition deep in the Amazon bites off much more than it can chew; I can't count the number of times I've seen just that scene in this or that mediocre movie—complete with the bats! Cronin's most significant "twists" on the standard vampire mythology and post-apocalyptic plot surface in the narrative when his vampires manifest the potential for building a kind of collective consciousness and exercising psychic influence over unconverted humans. Nevertheless, the extent to which these vampires may differ ontologically in interesting ways from our overfamiliar friends unfortunately matters very little when their behavior for the bulk of the narrative reproduces that of any other strain of post-apocalyptic zomb-vamp "infected": they continue to spend most of their (and our) time besieging precariously fortified settlements, waylaying helplessly vulnerable travelers, and so on.

I don't mean to suggest that the novel's plot is uniform, bland, or predictable, and its self-consciously epic scope allows Cronin to range widely and competently across various post-apocalyptic tracks. In fact, Cronin has given us several different novels between these two covers—the problem, again, is simply that I've already read most of them. For instance, the initial Andromeda Strain phase of the narrative melts right into 28 Days Later, while a brief Earth Abides interlude starts up only to pass into Z for Zachariah, and then slide all the way back to "By the Waters of Babylon," with heavy doses of I Am Legend along the way—in its several incarnations—and even a touch of A Boy and His Dog. Finally, the confrontation with the central antagonist just barely skirts a truly Beyond Thunderdome moment (quite a save), and the only underrepresented tradition would seem to be that of The Day of the Triffids, which makes sense, because, whatever else can be said of it, I certainly wouldn't call The Passage a particularly cosy catastrophe. To a certain extent, it is impressive that Cronin has managed to cram such a broad range of narratives into his novel without everything falling apart, but it still strikes me as odd that, for all of the direct references to fairytales and the X-Men and Where the Wild Things Are and Tales from the Crypt and even Dracula, I didn't note a single reference to another apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic narrative. The story of the Noahic flood probably comes the closest, but Cronin invokes this prior text more for the connection between Noah's longevity and that of the vampires; I suppose part of what put me off about the novel is that Cronin occasionally writes as if he were the first author ever to end the world.

And just a word on the particular world Cronin chooses to destroy, which in fact doesn't even begin to end until roughly a quarter of the way through the novel. Even before the vampire apocalypse, this otherwise generic American dystopia of the Year of Our Terror 2016 is notable for its own numerous manifestations of highly topical apocalyptic anxiety—to my mind, a tad too topical, in that Cronin plays too closely on current events in order to elicit cheap and easy terror. For example, we hear of the erosion of privacy and civil freedoms through talk of things like a "federal ID number" (p. 52); tensions in the Middle East and related terrorist activity have only intensified, including a war in Iran and incidents like the "Mall of America Massacre—three hundred holiday shoppers gunned down by Iranian jihadists" (p. 33); India and Pakistan have reintroduced nuclear weapons to modern warfare and Soviet nukes can be found on the black market; gas is thirteen dollars on the gallon; and, perhaps most topically, "the whole economy had locked up like a bad transmission" (p. 72). In effect, Cronin's vision of the future is chilling to us right now, but I sense that these overly contemporary kinds of references can sometimes dilute the lasting impact of speculative fiction narratives: in a decade or two, these fears may well have given way to others even more sinister. (In his own recent literary apocalypse, Steven Amsterdam rightly emphasizes that it's rather the Things We Didn't See Coming that often matter the most.) Of course, if one is going to predict that virtually everything Americans fear will come to pass within a few short years, one is bound to be right about one of them, and Cronin's grim predictions about the "Federal Industrial District of New Orleans" now resonate all too well. Although Cronin had imagined that a second super hurricane would finally do Louisiana in, he too cannily imagines "flooded lowlands so polluted that the water of its fouled lagoons could melt the skin right off your hand" (p. 65), and the entire Gulf of Mexico "pretty much a chemical slick" (p. 648). And again, all of this to say nothing of the vampires! Fortunately, just as in Atwood's postscript to The Handmaid's Tale—though fairly early on in his own text—Cronin gives us a comforting professorial voice from the far future letting us know that We Make It; I, for one, am glad to know that we'll have academic conferences up and running a mere ten centuries after the apocalypse.

And then there is Amy, the girl at the heart of every major event in the novel. I tried my best not to think of her as "Blade with pigtails"—check, "all of their strengths, none of their weaknesses"—but our little immortal messiah proved a little too cavalierly Christ-like to work on my sympathies as I sense she was intended to. (To clarify, so far she's only participated in a few action sequences herself, and I expect that, in future installments, the "Blade" role will be taken up with considerably more gusto by a certain other character.) Indeed, part of the "myth" surrounding this blockbuster novel is Cronin's explanation that he wrote it on a challenge from his young daughter: she wanted a story about a little girl who saved the world. If The Road, then, was in part a distantly autobiographical meditation on the relationship between father and son, buried somewhere in The Passage is a similar dissection of the position of female children in relation to adults, and presumably Cronin's feelings about his own daughter. Unfortunately, these overriding concerns can cause the narrative to lapse into incongruous moments of sentimentality, as when again and again various otherwise "tough" or even thoroughly wicked men all seem to have a secret soft spot for little girls: "For a second, just one, he thought it. It brushed him like a wing: the wish that he were a different kind of person, that the look in a child's eyes meant something to him" (p. 148).

Yet The Passage is not without its complexities, and I would locate the most compelling and original contributions of this apocalypse not in individual characters like Amy and her various protector and protectee figures, but in fact in another group of children and their own "protectors." In the second half of the novel, we move into "the Colony," an isolated settlement to which the military had sent children during the early days of the vampire plague. Roughly one hundred years later, not only are the people of the Colony facing their own impending "apocalypse," but they have institutionalized a peculiar policy ensuring that each newborn child must endure his or her own private apocalypse. For the first eight years of their lives, all of "the Littles" are isolated in a "Sanctuary" where they are led to believe that the outside world of their books and maps still exists as it did before the devastating outbreak. This policy seems intended to give the children eight years of ignorant bliss, but it results in the pitiless and I would imagine unnecessary perpetuation of the very same apocalypse that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had to face: as the fantasy world in which they live is destroyed once they come of age, so was the "fantasy" world—the world in which we still live—lost to their forebears. Perhaps the parents inflict this apocalypse in miniature on their children out of a misguided desire to return to happy innocence themselves—a desire obviously not confined to our apocalyptic fantasies.

This sophisticated conceit that comments on and connects childhood and the ending of worlds will stay with me, but to be honest I'm not sure how much of the remainder of the novel will do so. Yes, we also get some tantalizing hints about how the vampire plague could be read as some kind of collective dream of immortality, but these are spread thinly throughout the novel, and are more often perplexing than illuminating. That the vampires largely behave more like mindless zombies—ripping people apart and with a "sweet spot" just waiting for the hero's projectile—lends The Passage the same mixture of oppressive atmosphere and giddy moments of stressful exhilaration that many recent movies and video games strive to create. For my tastes, Hollywood has been turning out of enough of these post-apocalyptic landscapes milked for action and short on reflection, and, while there isn't a complete lack of reflection in The Passage, the ratio is lower than I'd like. Also, while I have no problems with the quality of the prose, I've seen some rather dubious comparisons of Cronin with a stylist of the caliber of McCarthy; I just have to say that, if that comparison were valid, one should expect more lines in his novel like "this charred coagulate of their preterite lives" (Blood Meridian, p. 216), and fewer of these: "He peed and peed and peed some more" (p. 75). But, to sum up, fans of writers like Stephen King, if they don't accuse Cronin of plagiarism, will probably still enjoy the novel, and after all the back cover is tellingly emblazoned with a sizeable blurb by King. To be sure, The Passage outstrips the average thriller in terms of both depth of characterization and smoothness of prose, but for me it doesn't stand out enough among the hordes of post-apocalyptic undead to justify the considerable investment it demands. I may go ahead and see the movies, but I'll probably pass on future 1000-page installments.

T. S. Miller is currently a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies Middle English literature. Of course, genre fiction has been the secret vice of many a medievalist before him. His non-fiction has also appeared on The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and another article is forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies.

T. S. Miller teaches both medieval literature and modern speculative fiction as Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, where he contributes to the department’s MA degree concentration in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
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