Passage, The by Cronin, Justin, 2010

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But now there was a girl. Everything about her flew straight into the face of the facts. For a person - a defenseless child - to materialize out of the dark was as fundamentally disturbing as a snowfall in midsummer...It was wrong. It made no sense. Hope was a thing that gave you pain, and that's what the girl was. A painful sort of hope.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin, is the latest to be published in a growing body of literary mainstream SF/Horror stories. It is the story of an apocalyptic plague of vampires that all but wipes out humanity, and the few tired but tough and resourceful humans who survive in the wilderness. In writing it Cronin drew heavily from another master of the genre, Stephen King, especially from his good-versus-evil morality tale, The Stand. I have read a lot of books and short stories this year; this is one of the best so far. The Passage, I am told, is the first of a trilogy. Cronin has me exactly where he wants me; I might as well send him the money for the next two books now.

It is difficult to divide The Passage up into distinct sections for ease of discussion, mainly because of the size of the book. This thing is truly a big book, both in page count and in essence. Although the story takes place over the course of a century, all of the action happens at the beginning and end of that time frame. In the near-future era of the story the CDC learned of the existence of a group of terminal cancer patients who, while on a "last wish" type of tour to Central America, encountered a biological agent that completely cured their illnesses and made them all young again, but ultimately killed them by making them too healthy; "Cerebral aneurysm, heart attack, stroke. Their bodies just kind of blew a fuse." Intrigued, enterprising scientists investigated and learned of a virus in the heart of the jungle that reactivated the thalamus of the infected, making the infected immune to disease and quick to heal, even from lethal wounds. Once the location of the virus was pinpointed, however, the scientists realized that it had some amazing properties; it changed its host into ravening monsters with incredible strength, dexterity and speed, and an appetite for blood.

Unable to pass up the opportunity, the government quickly militarized the program that harvested the virus and set up shop in a high pass in Telluride, Colorado. Operation Noah, as it became known, hired a couple of FBI agents - Wolgast and Doyle - to recruit death row inmates and convicted child molesters with no family or friends – essentially people whom nobody would miss – to be guinea pigs in experiments to perfect the virus into a form that would not turn humans into vampires. The project chugged along nicely, with twelve patients incarcerated deep in the mountain stronghold of Project Noah, until the commanders of the project asked Wolgast and Doyle to get a little girl for the project. Dr. Lear, a paleovirologist and the scientific head of the program, became convinced that a refined version of the serum would grant immortality to a child, whose thalamus was still active, while leaving it in human form. Wolgast and Doyle were sent to scoop up Amy, a six year old girl whose prostitute mother had murdered a college boy that tried to lure her to a fraternity gang-rape, then dropped Amy at a convent before fleeing. Wolgast was not without a moral compass, and was mourning the death of his own young daughter. He quickly fell in love with Amy - who came in his own mind to replace his dead daughter - and tried to help her escape. Unfortunately for Amy he was unable to keep her away from those in charge of Project Noah. Amy was eventually infected purposefully with the thirteenth version of the virus. The evening she was infected, however, the other twelve ("The Twelve," from here on out) escaped after twisting the minds of their guards and caretakers psychically, through dreams. The Twelve had moderately strong psychic abilities that gave them the power to make people forget who they were, becoming bonded thralls to one of The Twelve.

Amy was infected successfully; she essentially became immortal and had the psychic gifts of the others, but she was not transformed into a monster. Wolgast rescued her as The Twelve destroyed the labs, grounds and just about everyone there. He made for a remote campground in Oregon that he attended while he was a boy where the two of them rode out the destruction of America. They remained in Oregon until the retreating government tried to burn the vampires out with nuclear bombs. Later Wolgast succumbed to radiation sickness, and Amy walked out into the wilderness alone, but pretty much immune to any harm that could befall her.

The story then switched to 90 years in the future, to a walled compound that the army set up for children during the evacuations from major cities. The people of the Colony lived with some livestock and a nearby power station to run bright lights at night. The infected, called "smokes," began to smoke and burn in bright light. For the last century the Colony lived ever vigilant lives; an oasis in a nation of an estimated forty million vampires. Although the walls of the Colony were too high for the smokes to jump over, their security was becoming more precarious by the day. The batteries that the station kept charged for nighttime lighting were aging, and held less energy each time they were recharged. The Colonists and the small parties that trekked to the power station lost members all the time, so the population was thinning. Those that remained were growing depressed, both with the mundane chores of living in a close-knit community that never changed, and over fears from the increasing smoke activity. Several couples in particular - Peter and Alicia, Sara and Hollis, Theo and Mausami (and Galen, in a triangle) questioned the relatively powerless roles that they had in the Colony.

Eventually (after a long telling of the background of the Colony, how they were cut off from all communication from the outside world, not knowing if anyone else was even alive, and how the smokes had terrorized them for decades, stealing and killing the Colonists) Amy came back into the story. She wandered down from the Oregon mountains to the California high desert, where she encountered a group of the Colonists at the power station, and saved Peter from death at the hands of a couple of smokes in an abandon shopping center; Peter was confused when he watched Amy control the smokes, and saw that she could also communicate without words. The two were separated at the end of the fight, and Peter returned to the Colony. Amy eventually appeared at the gates of the Colony, alone and somehow uneaten, bringing strange dreams to all the Colonists with her. A long series of events and calamities pushed several of the Colonists to abandon Colony life; by the time they made this decision, Amy had joined them, in a silent and fugue-like state, and embedded with a transmitting chip that held 93 years of Amy's health data. After further analysis they learned that a transmitter in Colorado was sending a message to Amy's chip that when translated said "If you find her, bring her here," over and over again.

Desperate for some change in their miserable lives, they decided to travel to a base that one of them knew of at Twenty-Nine Palms Marines Station in the California high-desert, where they equipped themselves for a journey to Colorado, to chase down and learn the truth of Amy's existence; Along the way they met scores of ghouls in Las Vegas, a group of thralls in a prison in Desert Wells, Nevada, and ultimately one of The Twelve - Babcock - who during his time on Earth was sentenced to die for the casual murder of his own mother, and who lived like a demon-god with a hoard of those he had transformed called The Many.

Despite the premise and some of the set up, nothing in this book really has a supernatural feel to it. Instead of the mystical, this book is rooted in the rational. The order of the day was infectious diseases rather than curses; bullets and arrows instead of spells; biologically transformed men and women instead of demons. Even the smokes (later called "dracs" by an expeditionary army of men from the independent nation of Texas that the group from the Colony encountered in Colorado) had pathetic human qualities to them (that actually garner them some sympathy, rather than inspiring purely preternatural fears). Cronin drew lightly from the Book of Noah as well, in the form of extreme longevity, and for another reason I just don't want to spoil.

Underneath it all is a steady but subtle comment about the power of love. Even with all the demonic imagery and horror, love has a big, big place in this story; it is the impulse by which the characters pull themselves up out of misery. Consider this: Despite the fact that a catastrophe almost wiped out mankind, things could have been much worse. The only thing that kept everything from falling apart completely was that these characters loved and took care of each other. Wolgast loved Amy, and saved her from the labs, which gave her a chance to grow into a savior. Peter loved Alicia and his brother Theo, and went to the ends of the Earth for them both, which helped Amy reach her destiny. Amy loved Peter, and helped him understand what he had to do to live and save those that he loved, which was representative of the fulfillment of her destiny. The happy thing is that despite all of this love, the book really is not a group-grope. The characters were all essentially loners, stuck for the most part inside their own heads, wondering why the other guy or gal didn’t love feel the same way about them. There was also a sense of waiting in this novel. Most of the characters, Amy included, were waiting for something to happen to them. The Colony was waiting for the army. Amy was waiting to be told what her purpose was. Lacey (another character who was important to Amy) waited over about 100 years for Amy to return to her. This feeling predominates.

I also believe that Cronin drew very heavily from the tracks set down by Stephen King in his novel, The Stand. Even a few comparisons should be obvious from the tiny bit I have discussed in this review, but because there are likely to be many Cronin-gropers out there who poo-poo this idea, here is a list of the points of comparison:

  • This is the story of a world-wrecking plague;
  • Everything starts with a misguided government plague research that is loosed accidentally, because base personnel aren't paying attention;
  • All of the "good" guys live in one city;
  • There is an ancient, female, African-American character who rants about conversations with God and her own special abilities;
  • Many of the characters have common dreams that portent bad things coming their way;
  • There is a strong focus on America and Americana, both large and small towns;
  • Several of the characters set foot across country on foot;
  • Colorado figures big in the story;
  • Las Vegas figures also. It's not as big, but is important to what happens;
  • The story starts in summer and ends in winter, with a little dip into spring before ending;
  • There are desiccated corpses everywhere;
  • There are large traffic jams of the dead;
  • There is a long introduction where the author gradually slips into the story, while the catastrophe slowly unfolds;
  • There is a long dénouement, of about 100 pages, after the main goal is accomplished;
  • The story ended with the detonation of a nuclear bomb that nobody knew was there.

That is a lot of points of comparison, if you ask me. It's true that the purpose and focus of the books is different, as is the general feeling one gets from reading it. Cronin's book is much more complex, less stereotypical in the way it presents the issue, and much less kitschy. The Passage is much darker and solemn, though Cronin did show an off-beat sense of humor (Texas governor Jenna Bush, for example). The bad guys here are more sleek, deadly and animalistic than Flagg, who often seemed to me to be more conniving and motivated to see your reaction to the evil that he did; evil for Flagg's own sake, rather than the sheer fact of evil. More, King’s story was about the transformation of the common man into a savior through self-sacrifice. Cronin’s book was more traditional, in that Amy was turned into a messiah whose promise was to save mankind by destroying its enemy personally, but the savior motifs are in both books.

There were a few small problems with this book. The middle section, about the history of the Colony, dragged in places. Cronin also set up a mythic explanation for vampires in history but dropped it, and turned hard to avoid the Central American folklore aspect too. He also made one or two giant leaps in plot; in one section Wolgast and Doyle’s boss knew the moment that Amy was dropped off at the convent without ever having her on their radar before; before the police even knew that she existed, or that someone had been murdered. But here the bad pales in comparison to the good. This is a Noah story in the true sense of the word; you can just tell that in five thousand years the Books of Peter and Mausami are going to be part of someone’s theology. The way Cronin presents his story references the dimmest part of our own history, where cave dwellers notice some things around them and start to ask questions. Take the Colonists for example. Because of the bright lights that surround them, none of them have ever seen the stars. Once Peter got out of there, he turned his gaze upward and contemplated existence, as if for the first time. Suddenly the potential of the world was open to them all!

The story ends here with some big changes. Again, I’m not going to ruin it all for you. At least I’m not going to do that now. But if you have not read this book by the time I get to the next installment, watch out! Spoilers will abound!

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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