The Passage has one of the best “Let’s get this epic quest on the road” moments in literary history. It’s an original enough scenario that it doesn’t seem tired, but it’s also familiar enough to suggest the myriad roads the story could follow. Even better, it builds organically out of the characters established so far in the book, as well as their desires and talents. It also arrives on page 477.
Purported to be the first in a trilogy, The Passage examines what happens when a more traditionally literary novelist is loosed in Stephen King territory. The book is one of the best-written examples of the genre, but it’s weirdly paced. It takes almost 200 pages for the post-apocalyptic horror to really get going, and while everything in those first 200 pages is interesting, it also occasionally seems like the longest Lost flashback ever, especially when Cronin jumps a century into the future, just a few pages later.
But what works in The Passage works so well that readers likely won’t care. This is one of the better instances of someone taking the time to do popcorn fiction right in recent memory, and every time the book threatens to sag under the weight of Cronin’s more literary conceits, he introduces interesting insights into how the people in the far future survive in a world ravaged by vampires of the monstrous, non-sexy variety, or produces an action sequence involving those vampires loping after a runaway train with humanity’s last, best hope for survival on board. The Passage is paced oddly, but not poorly. Cronin never does the expected, but that becomes a virtue as the book unleashes beautiful payoffs in its latter moments.
The writing quality is really what makes the novel worth reading. Whole sections of The Passage could be plucked out of the book and inserted into a Best New Horror anthology. Cronin’s insight into human nature provides a neat contrast to all the spewing blood, for instance when a suicidal woman reflects on how she’s already a ghost, or (in one of the book’s best moments) as a surrogate father tries to ensure his daughter’s safety as the world crumbles around him. As good as it is, The Passage seems destined to have too few vampires for the vampire fans and too many of them for quality literature fans. For those who can find their way to the middle ground, though, it’s a lot of fun.