Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Passage

"Epic horror" isn't something you hear of very often, unlike "epic fantasy" or "historical epic." But Justin Cronin seems to have done just that in "The Passage," the first book of a new horror trilogy that seems to be equal parts Stephen King and "The Road" -- a gloriously bleak, imaginative book that drags on in places.

It's honestly hard to summarize a book like this, since Cronin hops around between different people, different time periods, and different places. A little girl named Amy is left by her mother at a convent, only for her to be snatched away by a tormented FBI agent. At the same time, the government is attempting a new experiment that might wipe out disease completely and prolong life -- resulting in eleven insectile "vampires."

Of course, something goes horribly wrong. And over the century following that experiment, American civilization is ravaged by packs of vampires ("dracs" or "virals"), leaving the few remaining humans struggling to survive. The one hope for humanity against the vampires is none other than Amy, still a young child who shares a unique tie to the blood-drinking monsters...

"The Passage" is one of the most unique vampire books in years -- it's part military conspiracy, part post-apocalyptic tale, and part vampire horror. And best of all, it reads like a Guillermo del Toro story filtered through the genius of Stephen King -- no drippy "Twilight" romanticism or glamour.

And Cronin's formidable prose is up to the challenge of writing a hundred-year post-apocalyptic horror epic. He writes in a detailed, gritty style that sprawls over several different narratives, sprinkled with moments of poetry ("the spreading darkness, like a black wing stretching over the earth") and lots of ghastly creepiness (oh, the vampires!). The only problem is that with a book this huge, there are times when the story sags and slows down.

And as you'd expect in a true horror story, the vampires here aren't gothic hunks or sparkly bishies -- they're grotesque, glowing, insectile monsters that tear their victims apart. But they're not truly the center of the story -- Cronin uses them as the prism through which we see that mortality isn't that bad, and that the human spirit is indomitable when it has something really horrible to fight against.

"The Passage" is a rare bestselling novel -- an epic, slightly bloated expanse of horror, science and post-apocalyptic adventure that leaves you breathless. Justin Cronin just won the crown.

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