Reviewed by Chris Flynn
It’s funny how movies influence books so much these days. The fact that The Passage was optioned by Sir Ridley Scott for $1.75 million within a week of Cronin settling on a $3.75 million publishing deal for his vampire apocalypse trilogy is unsurprising given large sections of this first volume read like a movie script. Quite how the Robin Hood director will handle turning this 768-page monster into a 2-hour feature film is a mystery only a knight of the realm can solve. Given his recent form, there will be some sort of grey/blue washed-out filter over everything, Liam Neeson will have a supporting role and there will be at least one scene featuring an arrow-filled sky. The good news for Sir Scott is that there are arrows and blades a-plenty in Cronin’s behemoth. Also Humvees. And characters making physically impossible dramatic leaps through the air whilst firing their weapons, narrowly avoiding the Moors/French/Bad Vampires.
Cronin’s pedigree as a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and winner of the Pen/Faulkner award lends this daft sounding Mad Max cum 28 Days Later mashup a certain credence but don’t be fooled into thinking this is highbrow literature taking on popular tropes. Cronin, whilst eminently more of a wordsmith than Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, is still no Raymond Carver. He’s more of an undisciplined Steven King. There’s something odd about the structure and tone of The Passage, which is in itself split into three sections. The first is really tight and suspenseful, as Cronin introduces us to the world of 2018 and the discovery of a virus that the military wants to use to create super soldiers. As everyone knows, this never turns out well and the bat-like blood-sucking ‘virals’ escape from the complex. Before you can say, ‘Oh Edward, you’re just so sparkly,’ the world has been flushed down the toilet, civilisation as we know it has been destroyed and there are 42 million of these virtually indestructible bad-tempered creatures hanging under bridges waiting to tear you from arsehole to elbow.
So far so I Am Legend. Just when you’re starting to actually like some of the characters, Cronin propels the narrative forward 92 years to focus on a rag-tag bunch of survivors living inside a floodlit complex in California. This is the slowest section of the book, and it’s a bit of a trial having to start caring for a whole new cadre of characters, most of whom are not very likeable. This is where the crossbows come in and probably where Ridley Scott sat up in his seat and rubbed his palms together in anticipation. Cronin goes to great lengths explaining how difficult it is to kill the virals, with only one sweet spot on the breastbone able to be penetrated by an arrow, bullet or knife. Conveniently all the survivors are really, really good shots. The romp picks up again when the central character of Amy, a girl who we are told will live a thousand years, turns up to drag a group of survivors off on a quest, of sorts. Despite being the key to everything, Amy’s character is strangely underdeveloped. Cronin makes us privy to the inner thoughts of everyone except her, though perhaps this will be amended in the next two episodes of the trilogy.
I’m making this sound like a load of old bollocks, but it’s good fun for the most part. The writing gets lazier and more clichéd as the book progresses, it sags badly in the middle and sections honestly do read like a cheesy action movie script but it’s a much better effort at ‘blockbuster literature’ than we’re used to, so I won’t complain too much. If nothing else it restores vampires to their rightful status as terrifying creatures of the night that you definitely do not want to be staring moodily across a meadow at. The main point of contention I have with The Passage is not the book itself, but the marketing. I read that bookstores are being told not to place this alongside Twilight or Vampire Academy as it is definitely not for sensitive teens. This is utter nonsense – a gross underestimation of the reading capabilities of young people and typical of the saccharine coating and condescension teenagers have to put up with. Yes it’s a scary book and people swear sometimes but duh. Cronin and his 9 year-old daughter came up with the idea when he was out running. She rode her bike alongside and told him his books were boring. When he asked her what sort of book he should write, she naturally said it should be about a girl who saves the world. Oh, and don’t forget the vampires. Every good book needs those, right? 42 million of them in here, though sorely lacking in werewolves. What was this guy Cronin thinking? Russell Crowe would have been perfect.
Chris Flynn writes for The Book Show on ABC Radio National, The Big Issue & Australian Book Review. In 2010 his work appears in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings & Harvest. He runs Dog’s Tales, a weekly storytelling night in St Kilda.