Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin
vamps get back to their best
(orion books, £20)
Popular culture seems to be going through something of a vampire overload at the moment. The tweens have Twilight, which features vampires that are cute and sensitive and have feelings. Older people have True Blood, where the vampires are cool and sexy.
And now you have The Passage, where the creatures contained within are most definitely neither of the above.
Twelve men on death row are offered a choice -- they can have their sentence commuted and their identities erased if they agree to simply sign a form. They don't know what they will have to do but they face an easy choice; a needle in the arm or a new life somewhere else.
It transpires that they are to be part of a military experiment, trying to adapt the blood of a rare vampire bat to create a super-soldier.
This is America set at 13 O'Clock; just a few tantalising years into the future.
References are made to veterans of the war in Iran, one military commander speaks of the need for such soldiers because: "We've been fighting for 15 years and it's not going to stop any time soon." And author Cronin has some mischievous fun looking just a few years into the future.
But, as is often the case, the experiment goes wrong and these human/bat hybrids soon escape and start infecting the world with terrifying rapidity.
It's a completely cataclysmic event -- countries nuke each other and even their own territory to try to contain the vampire infestation -- all to no avail.
And suffering through this is young Amy, the abandoned six-year-old daughter of a prostitute who is so disposable that she's also picked for the experiment.
Strangely, however, the infection she receives doesn't turn her into a vampire -- but something entirely different.
Fast forward roughly a hundred years and the few remaining survivors are holed up in isolated safe zones -- their only defence against the roaming 'virals' are crossbows.
They know nothing of life in the 'Before Time' and lead a desperate life scratching a living from the earth and becoming slowly more ignorant with each generation -- radio has been banned and the generator is slowly fading; a year or two and they will be without light. And without light, the virals can pick them off at their leisure.
And then, one night, a young girl appears outside the camp perimeter surrounded by the infected vampires -- who leave her alone. Just who is she? What is she?
Justin Cronin is better known as the author of literary fiction, so dipping his toe into vampire lore seems a strange departure, but the reader should be glad he did.
The Passage has received numerous comparisons to other works of apocalyptic fiction, namely The Stand and The Road.
And while the comparison with The Stand is certainly valid, it owes more stylistically to Max Brooks' World War Z, the account of the zombie wars and even, in its breadth and scope, it can stand in the same company as A Canticle For Liebowitz.
Cronin writes densely, however, and at 766 pages it packs a heavy punch, but after the feminisation of vampires in recent years, this is a welcome return to the vamp as more like the original Nosferatu than someone who looks like they should in a pop band.