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He had me at the words ‘virus’, ‘vampire’, and ‘apocalypse’. Justin Cronin’s third novel, the extremely well-written The Passage is divided into two time periods on either side of a thirty-two minute interval during which the seriously less-than-human carriers of a new contagion escape into the world. Before the escape, the world is the one we know; after, it acquires elements of  The Stand, I Am Legend, and a few things Mad Max might recognise. It is a cautionary tale that begins (as most of them do) with governmental and scientific hubris. In that respect, Cronin’s adventure follows the Standard Rules For Pear-Shaped Progress In A Horror Tale: First, someone must want something so badly that accepted conventions of protocol and respect are completely disregarded and, second, there must be innocents forced to deal with the repercussions in order to survive. The first rule is ably represented by Dr. Jonas Lear, a Harvard virologist driven by the memory of his beloved wife, and a man known as Richards, the ruthless military overseer of what is called Project NOAH; conceived in the wake of post-9/11 patriotic fervor, NOAH’s objective is to harness a strange new virus in order to create an extremely long-lived, “weaponized” human. Fulfilling the second rule is a small outpost of surviving humans and a six-year-old girl named Amy, the unwilling subject of NOAH’s last experiment, who will arrive at the outpost generations later as the unlikely key to saving them all.

Cronin savors the bones of his story with a dedication to detail that might draw a nod of approval from Nathaniel Hawthorne. Even while part of my mind was wondering when the real story would start and where the vampires would fit in, the deft prose held me long enough to realise that a very complicated house was being built. The groundwork Cronin sets down at the beginning of The Passage is laborious; though we learn immediately of Amy’s existence and her mysterious importance to later events, the story begins long before, when the teenager who would be Amy’s mother meets an unsuitable older man and it continues through the sad string of events that eventually find her abandoning her daughter at a convent. Even as a child, there is a hint of the supernatural about Amy; it seems reasonable that her special abilities may not have been so much created as enhanced. But enough of the back story—let’s get to the vampires. The word ‘vampire’ isn’t actually used very much, not because the word doesn’t fit but because, in the absence of literature, libraries, and computers it isn’t generally known. Among the remaining humans, the hunched, clawed, impervious creatures with mouths crowded with long teeth are called jumps, sticks, smokes, flyers, drinks, or virals. For a hundred years, since the catastrophic thirty-two minutes that introduced them to the world, the virals’ major weakness—light—is humanity’s greatest strength, providing a haven but, at the same time, making them a target.

The chaotic early years of the virus’s spread are known primarily through salvaged journals. As more and more of the population is killed or converted, efforts shift to trying to save as many children as possible. The relatively small group of people lucky enough to find shelter in the outpost must focus their entire lives on survival; for those born in the outpost later, technology is as much as a mystery as malls, automobiles, the ocean, and even the night sky. Cronin is equally comprehensive in his description of the narrowly dictated routines of their new lives; within the confines of the outpost he has created a microcosm of humanity as a whole. Though under constant threat from an almost unbeatable enemy, the descendants of the original survivors demonstrate the resourcefulness, toughness, and adaptability that has enabled them, like their ancestors, to endure. Only a few are aware that, after so many years of repairs and substitutions, their meager technology is failing and the lights will soon go dark. Some of them will have to go beyond the walls to find help, if it exists; to find answers, if they are granted; and to face a horrifying enemy, if they are really unlucky. They are.

For more information about Justin Cronin and to read an excerpt from this novel, visit his website.