On Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’ Trilogy

My cultural soft spot will always be vampires. There’s something about that monster—that bat-wing curve, that whipping black, that ferocity wrapped in the cold shadow—which gets me every time. Growing up, I was never fully satisfied with the stuffy formalwear of the traditional Gothic vampire, but now, as I’m older, I’m growing equally tired of the second most popular bloodsucker: the science vampire, scuttling on all fours, its ribcage visible, its supernatural powers explained by viruses and mutations.

Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy is the literary realization of this new trope. It tells the story of a world overrun by virals, creatures that are primarily vampires but which also incorporate the topical aspects of zombies and werewolves to make them even more dangerous. Of course, as with many of these modern takes on classic monsters, Cronin’s epic is more about the lives of the humans trying to survive in these face of apocalypse-inducing evils than it is about the creatures themselves.

The three books in this saga, The Passage, The Twelve, and this year’s The City of Mirrors, have all been highly successful, and indeed are fast and interesting reads. However, each book has its ups and downs, and, I think, won’t age that well. Let’s take a look at them.

The Passage thrusts us into a gritty, miserable, and all too real world. We meet Amy, the Girl From Nowhere, the child of a prostitute who seems destined for earth-shaking things as she’s ushered into a scientific experiment to distill vampirism in the hopes of—what else?—discovering immortality. Of course, everything goes wrong, and suddenly we jump a hundred years into the future, to a stronghold in California housing some of mankind’s best and brightest hope’s for continued survival. We follow these characters as they fight virals, meet back up with Amy, and decided to head out into the world they so deeply fear.

The Twelve takes us a few years further into the future, our characters having turned from shaky survivors into hardened soldiers. Society is on the mend, but there’s an evil settlement run by creepy slavers and the remainder of the Twelve, the twelve original virals, to deal with. Early on, we meet some cool new characters and flesh out our old favorites, but towards the end we get steeped in a lot of vague cosmic nonsense—dream worlds that might be heaven, soul transference, et cetera. That said, some awesome epic battles ensue, and some serious consequences are encountered for our fearless heroes.

The City of Mirrors, however, is as weird as its title. We’re introduced to Fanning, the head viral who has become a Draculean vampire, and told nearly a hundred pages of his hackneyed life story, specifically his experience at Harvard that feels written for a bad Oscar bait screenplay (the whole section is like the bear story in John Irving’s The World According to Garp). We’re then shown a series of quickly-organized premises that never go anywhere; the virals are gone but then they’re back, a viral-on-viral war is set up but then never fought, and so on. The book goes full Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan by having a title about New York but only truly engaging the city in the final eighth of the story. The ending takes place a thousand years in the future, during mankind’s new dominant age, or something.

If it’s not already obvious, I didn’t like The City of Mirrors very much, but I’d like to make it clear that if you have a few weeks, all three books are worth the read. They’re fast-paced and a lot of fun, and when the sci-fi stuff works it works incredibly well. But where The Passage thrusts us into a fascinating endtime, and The Twelve broadens our understanding of that world, The City of Mirrors feels like a struggle to fit in as many different new ideas as possible. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, Cronin seems to have filled The City of Mirrors with these plot devices because he could, without questioning whether or not he should.

Interestingly, Cronin’s work is comparable to that of Stephen King in many ways. Both King and Cronin begin their books by building deeply interesting characters and situations, but then let them fall by the wayside or fail to follow through on them during rushed endings. Both authors do very well with familiar everyday language, but often get bogged down in elevated writer-speak. And both of them seem interested in uncertain spiritual phenomena—dream-scapes, psychic energy, electricity that might be souls, and the power of love conquering all.

The difference is that King’s stories have a certain quaintness to them that feels personable and human, even during the end of the world. Say what you want about Stephen King, but his ghosts and demons are very classic; the vampires of Salem’s Lot may be strange and spectral, but they tap at windows and fear the cross just like the Count’s brides. Cronin’s books, however, feel detached, describing a future he may not be able to actually see that well. Fanning in The City of Mirrors feels like a retreat from this, as though Cronin realized he’d written a bunch of vampire books without getting to have a real vampire in them.

The romantic story is that Cronin wrote some books that didn’t take off, and his daughter told him that the problem is that nothing happens in his novels. So he began telling her a story that eventually became The Passage. As a fan of action and horror, I love a good things happening story, and on this Cronin delivers. But early on in the trilogy, he manages to intertwine that momentum with humanity. By the end, it feels as though he’s writing for the movies, all studio sets and CGI rather than characters and emotions.

In that respect, Cronin’s trilogy is much like the science vampire, a variation on the monster we know in a struggle to remain current. Sure, there’s a lot to explore there, and when it hits home it does so hard. But too often it’s all a lot of scrabbling claws and teeth, without any drama, or command, or menace. Sometimes, things happening is just not enough—you want the dark heart of the matter

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