The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010) 766 p.

The Passage is inevitably going to be compared to The Stand, because Cronin has a similar writing style and because of the underlying premise: it’s an epic end-of-the-world novel in which an American bio-warfare lab accidentally unleashes a terrible plague across America and the world (in which America is the focus and the rest of the world barely gets mentioned, as though Americans forget it’s there; and when they remember, they dismiss it as unimportant anyway). There’s a black woman who talks to god, a quest across the country to Colorado and Las Vegas (in reverse in The Passage), a nuke goes off at the end and… actually, as I’m writing this, I’m realising how derivative it is. There’s definitely no way this book would exist without The Stand. The biggest obvious difference is that while King’s superflu killed people dead, Cronin’s virus turns them into vampires – pale, lean, unintelligent but exceptionally strong and agile vampires of the modern-horror variety, akin to the creatures of I Am Legend.

In any case, The Stand is better. And The Stand isn’t even amazing; just good. Not the best of King’s work and not the best in the post-apocalyptic genre. So that leaves The Passage in a pretty sorry place.

The first third of the book is certainly the strongest, revolving around the U.S. government’s top-secret “Project Noah,” and the FBI agent assigned to collect death row prisoners for experimentation. The pace moves slowly (as it does throughout the book) as Cronin delves extensively inside the characters’ heads, gradually revealling the scope and extent of the project: the secret base in Colorado, the staff comprised of convicted pedophiles, the fate of the research team that first uncovered the virus in Bolivia, and the orders for the end of “phase one:” execute all the staff, transfer the vampires to White Sands for testing. Phase one is never completed; the vampires break out and overrun the facility.

This is where any fan of the apocalyptic genre expects the juice of the story: the chaos that unfolds as the vampires wreak havoc across society. Instead we get about ten pages with a few scraps of information, and then the story jumps ahead a hundred years and introduces a completely new cast of characters, sheltering inside their fortified town in California.

In terms of pacing this is a bad move, one that perhaps could have been salvaged if Cronin hadn’t insisted on introducing about twenty characters at once, without any indication as to which of them will be important. Cronin, bless his heart, seems to think that they’re all important, and that I really want to read about the thoughts and fears and hopes and dreams (actual literal dreams!) of ancillary characters. This is not the case, particularly when even the main characters are unmemorable cardboard cut-outs. We have the Self-Doubting Leader, the Badass Amazon, the Magic Negro, the Wisecracking Teenager, the Socially Awkward Engineer, and so on. (Later we will be introduced to the Stern But Kind Commanding Officer.) And these characters are forced to support the weak middle section of the book, the hundreds and hundreds of pages about… well, nothing much in particular.

The Passage struggles back to life in the final act, once the wheat has been sorted from the chaff and the core characters set out on a mission. Things do come to a somewhat reasonable conclusion, and although the novel ends on a cliffhanger wih regards to some of the characters, I didn’t care about them, so that was fine.

Justin Cronin isn’t a bad writer – comparisons to Stephen King are a compliment – and The Passage isn’t a bad novel, but it isn’t a particularly good one either. If I could describe it in one word, it would be “bloated.” Cronin easily could have cut out the entire middle third of the story, and probably should have. The characters are weak, and although I don’t expect Atticus Finches and Holden Caulfields from a vampire novel, I will remember The Stand‘s Harold Lauder and Larry Underwood and Glen Bateman longer than I do… uh… Peter and company. But it does have its moments – as as I said before, the first act is intriguing and well-written, and there’s a good creepy segment in the third act where the characters arrive at a settlement in Nevada where all seems to be well, yet there’s something eerily wrong about the place (similar to a segment in Watership Down). In the end, however, The Passage‘s flaws outweigh its virtues. Marginal thumbs down.