I’ve decided that I’m fine with vampires as long as they don’t have sex. Blood and violence and killing and wandering around in the middle of the night pouncing on things: those can be the ingredients of top-flight fiction. But the minute vampires become “erotic,” I’m suddenly going to discover an overwhelming urge to clean out the attic. Because, EWW. Seriously, EWW.
In The Passage, vampirism is caused by a virus. Justin Cronin uses the word ‘vampire’ just often enough to remind his reader that he is in familiar paranormal narrative territory, but most of the time people who have contracted the virus and been transformed are referred to as ‘virals.’ Here’s the backstory: a team of U.S. military scientists and a Harvard professor specializing in “paleovirology” team up to investigate a strange occurrence in Bolivia. Through a series of emails from Jonas Lear – the paleovirologist – to his friends and colleagues, we learn that 1) the novel is set at some point in the relatively near future (no specifics are given, and the emails aren’t dated, but references to the “Iran War” and other fictional events indicate that perhaps the story is set twenty or thirty or forty years in the future; 2) Lear’s project involves vampires, although he refuses to use that word (“Just try to get an NAS grant with ‘vampire’ anywhere in the paperwork” , Lear writes); and 3) the project started out as a civilian research project but was commandeered by the Army when a team of special forces stepped out of a helicopter in the middle of the South American rain forest, informed Lear that he had been granted the rank of major, and insisted on being read into the details of Lear’s work. While these emails accurately reflect the way intimates would write to one another – in almost a code language of private references and allusions – and therefore leave the reader ignorant about the details of Lear’s project, they seem to be trying to find the truth about an ancient legend among the native people of the area, and Lear becomes excited when he finds a statue of “a human being, but not quite: the bent animal posture, the clawlike hands and the long teeth crowding the mouth, the intense muscularity of the torso” (22). Next Lear states that he and his colleagues have found nine pieces of ancient art depicting similar beings. His emails to his colleague become more and more frantic, with references to members of his team who are ill and to his prediction that “[he doesn’t] see how [they] can survive another night here” (25). The last email in the series contains a single sentence: “Now I know why the soldiers are here” (25).
Elsewhere in the early chapters of the novel, we learn about Amy – a young girl born to a hapless woman with no money and terrible taste in men – and about Anthony Carter, a death-row inmate from Texas. In these chapters, Amy and her mother move into a motel, where Amy sleeps in the bathtub at night while her mother turns tricks. Ongoing financial difficulties and the shame over becoming a prostitute prompt Amy’s mother to abandon Amy at a convent. She feigns car trouble and asks the nuns to watch Amy for a little while so she can go get help – but she never returns. At the convent, Amy bonds with Sister Lacey, who grew up in a war-torn country and saw her entire family raped and murdered before being brought to a convent by aid workers and later making her way to the United States.
The characterization in this novel is absolutely incredible. All of these characters’ lives are richly defined, and I don’t think there’s a single flat or static character in the book. In the hands of another novelist, a character like Anthony Carter might be relatively well fleshed out, as he struggles with his limited intellect to make sense of what he did (kill a woman who had hired him to work in her yard). Cronin, on the other hand, manages to richly flesh out not only Carter’s life – both in the present and in the past – but the life of the woman he killed, who is dead when the story begins and never plays a key role. Cronin seems unable to create a flat character. I can imagine a book in which this kind of detail would be overwhelming and/or boring, but Cronin has such skill and such patience that every word of this 766-page novel is rich and fascinating.
Soon a team of FBI agents arrives for Anthony Carter. While we don’t know much about their mission until later, we know here that they have been assigned to collect twelve different death-row inmates from various prisons around the country and deliver them to a secret military base in Colorado. The government is following up on Jonas Lear’s work in Bolivia – testing the effects of a certain newly discovered virus on humans. They’ve chosen death row inmates with no family or close friends – inmates whose records indicate that they’ve never had visitors. Since these men are expected to die soon, the official records will say that they were executed as planned, but in reality they will just be spirited out of their prisons to be used as test subjects. When they are infected with the virus, they transform into barely-recognizable iterations of themselves, characterized by sharp teeth, a stooped posture, and a voracious hunger for raw meat. These men are kept in a high-security facility and monitored closely. These ‘virals’ possess superhuman strength and excellent hunting instincts, and the military plans to keep them in reserve in case they ever need to be used as weapons.
Meanwhile, there’s something eerie about Amy. Sister Lacey takes her to the zoo, where Amy causes a commotion because she can talk to bears. All of the animals in the zoo are drawn to Amy and seem both fascinated and upset by her appearance. Amy confides in Lacey, “They know what I am” – which is creepy, of course – and next the same two FBI agents who brought Anthony Carter to Colorado show up at the zoo and take Amy into custody, claiming that she is a federal witness.
Believe it or not, everything I’ve described above (and I’ve left a lot of details out) is part of the novel’s rising action. We haven’t even gotten to its central characters and conflict yet. After the FBI agents complete their mission of bringing Amy to the same base in Colorado where the virals are kept, the novel flashes forward a hundred years and introduces a whole new set of beautifully drawn, complex characters. At this point, most of North America has been taken over by virals. The vast majority of humans on the continent have been killed or infected with the virus. What used to be the United States is in ruins. Since the only weapon humans can use against the virals is light, a group of humans survives in a compound high in the San Jacinto mountains in southern California (I lived in the San Jacinto mountains for three years, and I couldn’t help picturing the compound as the campus of the school where I worked), and the society they have developed revolves around protecting their supply of electricity and monitoring the intensely bright lights that are installed over their compound all night. These survivors have little or no cultural memory; while only a hundred years have passed since the first human test subjects were infected with the virus, those hundred years have been so traumatic and intense that the residents of the compound know almost nothing about the world outside the compound’s walls. In this sense, this novel is a lot like A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is also about a group of survivors struggling to preserve a place in the world for the human race after a nearly apocalyptic disaster. In The Passage, the characters in the compound don’t even know if the human race survives anywhere else on earth; they know that the rest of the world quarantined North and South America after the outbreak started, and for all the characters know, life might be going on as usual on those continents. Or equally likely, the people in the California compound might truly be the only humans left on earth who have not contracted the virus.
Here we meet the central characters of the novel: Theo and Peter Jaxon, Michael and Sara Fisher, and Alicia Donadio. Life in the compound is a lot like human life everywhere: people disagree and jockey for power. They fall in love. They choose careers and struggle for recognition for their skills and intelligence. They long to please their parents. They agonize over how to care for their children in a shifting and dangerous world. The only difference between these characters and other humans is that these characters face a specific, familiar, life-altering threat every day, and also that these characters have very little sense of their own history and of the larger world. There is something very Plato’s-cave about the compound where they live.
Michael Fisher is an electrician, and he has discovered that the compound’s lights will soon fail. They will run out of electricity soon, and when they do, they expect that the entire compound will be killed on the first night of unbroken darkness. The authorities in the compound are divided on what they should do about this problem. At the same time, a radio operator – who spends most of his time listening to static in hope that someday he’ll find evidence that there are other humans alive somewhere in the world – has finally found a frequency that contains a cryptic message: “When you find her, bring her here.” By studying the origin of the signal, the radio operator postulates that “here” means somewhere in Colorado. And then, guess what? Amy arrives. A hundred years after she was taken by the FBI after the incident at the Memphis Zoo, she turns up in an abandoned shopping mall that the compound members use as a supply base. And guess what else? She’s still a young kid. She hasn’t aged at all. The question of who or what Amy is becomes the central question of the rest of the book – and believe me, this question is a fascinating one.
Against the wishes of some of the most powerful members of the community, a group of brave young adults – including Theo and Peter, Michael and Sara, and Alicia – set off to take Amy to Colorado. They don’t know for sure whether Amy is the “she” in the message, but they have a hunch that she is and they decide to find out for themselves. Of course, they have other reasons for going on their journey too: to prove their courage and usefulness, to escape the harsh judgments of certain authority figures back in the compound, to continue the work of (and possibly find) a father who disappeared and is presumed dead. Like the characters in the beginning of the novel (Amy, Jonas Lear, Sister Lacey. Anthony Carter), these characters are incredibly well drawn. Their histories, their memories, their rivalries and jealousies and passions are all constructed with sympathy and depth.
I highly recommend this novel, even to people like me who usually think vampires are icky. There’s so much more I could tell you, but this is the kind of novel that relies on suspense, so I’m not going to reveal much more. Let’s just say this: the team that leaves the compound does meet other humans. They also find that there are places where the humans have worked out an agreement with the virals and are managing to live in relative peace and safety – but at a price. And we learn that the virals are not the uncomprehending beasts that they appear to be, that there is an organization and a structure to their interactions, and that Amy understands it.
This book is great. It’s the best vampire book I’ve ever read – and yes, that includes A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, which I also liked quite a lot. And the best part is that the vampires in this novel keep their nasty little icky private parts to themselves.