Justin Cronin's The Passage, Reviewed by Lizzie Skurnick

Justin Cronin's much-hyped novel, The Passage, is the big book of the summer, but Lizzie Skurnick says it's nothing like those other popular vampire novels—it's actually scary!

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment one achieves literary success, but when Stephen King picks up the phone to interrupt your Good Morning America appearance to personally thank you for writing your latest book, you know you are in the ballpark.

Yet that response is now but a stray laurel for author Justin Cronin, whose fourth book, The Passage, has been ushered into the marketplace with a blast of fanfare befitting a newly crowned sovereign. (Even I was amazed by this year’s BookExpo America conference, at which every attendee’s badge was stamped with the book’s cover, and an enormous The Passage banner fluttered from the ceiling of the convention center.)

The Passage is a real manly man’s monster novel, a call back to the good old days of Jaws and The Andromeda Strain.

Cronin is one of those authors whose personal story quickly becomes the story. A professor of English at Rice, he was a writer’s writer whose lyric, sublime novels were on track to granting him permanently obscure renown. But this changed when, on a jog, his daughter suggested he write a book about a girl who changes the world.

Cronin added vampires, and one book became three. These sold to Random House for an enormous sum, then were optioned to Ridley Scott for an even better one. No more the death kiss of Whiting Awards and Pew Fellowships.

But these media talking points are actually the least interesting things about The Passage, whose appeal Stephen King summed up with atypical economy. “Justin,” he confided to the author, George Stephanopoulos, and Good Morning America’s audience of millions, “You put the scare back in vampires, buddy.”

It pains me to say it, but ever since that sassy Buffy drop-kicked her way on to the scene, vampires have been locked in the passionate embrace, for better or for worse, with the fairer sex. In the frame of Joss Whedon’s patented irony, this witty spin on girl power charmed thousands. Stephenie Meyer’s chick-lit-meets-the-undead juggernaut plastered sublimated fantasies of teen girls on shelves and screens around the globe. Even HBO’s True Blood has its requisite quota of heavy breathing. Reports on what dependably kills a vampire vary, but it seems certain we were about to learn if they could be felled by a thousand feminist critiques.

Call us sticklers if you will, but here’s what Stephen and I think vampires are supposed to be: scary. Whew. Because, while The Passage may be about a girl who saves the world, it is not girly. And there are no doomed love interests, no coy referents to popular culture, no adorable half-breed children, no witty repartee with the enemy. There aren’t even any coffins.

No. The Passage is a real manly man’s monster novel, a call back to the good old days of Jaws and The Andromeda Strain, its faceless monster nameless and unstoppable. While the author claims to have been influenced by the late '60s TV show Dark Shadows, The Passage’s vampires don’t gloom around pondering their immortality in cravats, shrinking from society. They’re bent on eating society alive.

The most entertaining aspect of The Passage’s vampires is that they are pure government-issue. The deliberate spawn of a doomed research expedition to Bolivia, they are vampires only in a technical sense—fangs, check; fear light, check; live off the blood of mammals, check check check—but they live in cells like any other research subject, under the watchful care of a government who plucks sex offenders from prisons to create newly undead. (Sigh. That’s what monster novels were missing before Cronin: Bolivia and sex offenders.)

This plan to create a new, highly unstable tool of government warfare predictably backfires, but not before we meet Amy, the first child-subject. Amy is not government-issue but the abandoned daughter of a whore. (Ooo! Whores were missing, too!) After Amy’s mother deposits her with a sister at a nunnery (and NUNNERIES…), she quickly displays disturbing abilities, like inadvertently summoning all the animals in the local zoo to break their cages and follow her home.

She’s also, as the military learns, impervious to vampires. This skill will become useful when the vampires, as vampires will, also break from their cells and destroy the world as we know it.

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The Passage is thus split—how our world ends, and how those left behind survive in our wreckage. Cronin has a great deal of fun with our post-vampire world, imagining not only how our ill-equipped government would deal with the crisis (trains filled with children sent to a brightly lit desert, California closing its borders to the rest of the U.S.), but also how society remakes itself in our absence.

Cronin’s Year Zero creations are a hodgepodge, ersatz rule ranging from the functional to the perverse, members sharing only the charge to stay alive. Walled off in forts, the remaining humans’ knowledge of us is spotty. They may as well be the astronauts who stumble through abandoned villages in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, picking through our leavings like amateur archaeologists. However, this they rarely have the time to do, since they are too busy keeping clear of the “jumps” who hide out like roaches in abandoned malls and other sources of shade, ready to split them in two or have them join their club.

And it’s this almost folksy, brick-by-brick realism that also makes The Passage so fun. Gifting witty, omnipotent monsters with crack powers is always a good time— Deus ex monsterna—but it’s far more thrilling to imagine the effect real monsters would have on our pedestrian society—you know, the one with strip malls and neglectful parents and whores.

Yes, sometimes Cronin’s plot artifices—crack arrow shooters, ritual sacrifice—seemed plucked from a musty prop closet. But I don’t know if we can blame the author for this. It’s the eternal problem of the realistic monster novel—just read The Shining or The Stand. You spend your first half terrifying your reader with your monster’s known unknowns—and then the second half trying to stop your reader from noticing the survivors are just wandering back and forth across the island.

But Cronin has preserved a mystery that will carry him, and his readers, through the rest of the series—and, wisely, he’s not talking about it at all. When asked to explain the vampire ethos of the series, his answer is neatly professorial: “I think it’s because it asks a very fundamental question—what part of your humanity would you be trading away if you got to live forever? It’s basically a fable to reassure us that it’s better to be mortal.”

It’s a reply that will serve him well in innumerable interviews, but it does not, of course, apply to Cronin’s vampires at all, who by all accounts do not particularly enjoy living forever. In fact, we have no idea if they enjoy anything. How would we? They’re too busy streaking at us at lightning speeds and ripping us to shreds to stop to chat about their feelings.

But we do want to know—and the fact that we don’t is Cronin’s next terrifying item on the agenda. Because if what real-life vampires do to society is the question of the first novel, what real-life vampires feel—or don’t feel—will be the question of the second.

Like Jaws’ shark-hunter Quint, the young men of The Passage have, by the novel’s end, started to question exactly what those nasty unkillable beasts actually perceive. After barely surviving an attack, one ponders the “disquieting feeling that, at the end” his friend Zander “had made it easy for him—that Zander had still been Zander.”

Which is worse—if Zander is, or if he isn’t? Who are, after all, these vampires who refuse to watch over us in our sleep and take us to the prom, who have no cravats to speak of? Our descendants don’t know the answer. Readers don’t know the answer. Even Stephen King doesn’t know the answer.

But Justin Cronin does. And whatever it is, I think we can trust that it will be very, very scary.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery, a memoir of teen reading. She lives in Jersey City.