Saving humanity's last hope
Summer's hottest book projects a bleak future
The vampire craze sweeping literature is not unlike the virus that decimates the world in Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Sure, there are isolated enclaves of holdouts, defending literature as they know it from the onslaught of supernatural beings, but most of the reading public seems to have developed an insatiable thirst for stories featuring the undead, from writers like Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer.
A note to those who thought they were immune: I dare you to crack open The Passage and read page one. From the first sentence, Cronin’s epic establishes itself as something both equal to and greater than the supernatural suspense novels that have been eating up more and more bookshelf real estate since Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian became a surprise bestseller in 2005. As Cronin says during a call to his home on the outskirts of Houston, “these are not your teenage daughter’s vampires.”
He’s right. Cronin’s vampires—which are more often called “virals,” “flyers,” “slims” or “smokes”—inspire fear, hate and confusion, but never love. Spawned from a virus in a failed government effort to engineer a supersoldier, these undead share a hive-mind mentality, an aversion to sunlight and a hunger for human blood. The virus is tested on 12 felons—and one abandoned six-year-old girl, Amy Harper Bellafonte. She alone survives the testing with her humanity intact (albeit with added strength, healing ability and longevity); the others escape and alternately hunt and infect the rest of the world.
“Most vampire stories are essentially stories of magic. The magic of my lifetime is science. So I decided to ground it in a scientific reality and see what would follow from that,” Cronin says. “The experiment that produces the great viral cataclysm is essentially an act of human greed—it’s trying to steal the future from your kids. The scientists who are seeking to engineer a virus that makes human beings so long-lived that they are essentially immortal have missed the true immortality that we possess, which is that the future we will not live to see is the future our children will live in.”
This act of hubris, and its devastating consequences, are meticulously detailed. The Passage takes its time setting up the characters and story to create a solid foundation for the strange future readers enter when, 93 years later, Amy—who now looks about 16—stumbles into one of the last human settlements after a viral attack. Her arrival comes at a bad time. Vampires are getting bolder, coming near the settlement’s walls even during the daylight hours. The aging batteries powering the city’s 24-hour lights—their best defense—have little juice left. Some of the citizens are having violent nightmares and coming down with a strange illness that causes them to go insane. A silent, mysterious girl makes a convenient scapegoat.
But Peter senses that Amy’s otherness is a good thing. When they discover a transmitter in her neck with GPS coordinates for a place in Colorado that is broadcasting the message “If you find her, bring her here,” Peter and a group of loyal friends set off on an incredible journey.
Suspenseful and surprising, The Passage is something of a departure for Cronin, a Harvard grad and English professor at Rice University whose previous works—The Summer Guest and Mary and O’Neil—were quiet literary successes.
The reception of The Passage, however, has been anything but quiet. Cronin’s agent submitted the partial manuscript and an outline for auction in 2007 under the pen name Jordan Ainsley, an intentionally gender-neutral name. “I didn’t want anybody to read this book and categorize it in any way in advance. And indeed what happened is people came to it with an open mind, which I think every book deserves,” Cronin says.
He got more than open minds: Ballantine bought the trilogy for a reported $3.75 million, and a movie deal with Ridley Scott followed. Pre-publication buzz has been tremendous, and Cronin has already met with booksellers and librarians like Nancy Pearl, something the “extremely social” author has enjoyed, though he says his life has not otherwise changed. “You write any book with the hope that it will do well enough that you are able to write more, and The Passage has done that for me—spectacularly. Still, you’ve got to write for love, and I wrote this book for love.”
He also wrote it for his daughter, Iris, now 13. When she was about to turn nine, she asked if she could ride her bike along with her dad when he went on his evening runs. Cronin agreed, but “it’s hot in Texas and you’ve gotta do something to pass the time.” So he suggested they come up with an idea for a novel, “with no expectations whatsoever. Maybe I was sort of introducing my kid to the family business.”
Iris had a stipulation: She wanted to plot a story about a girl who saves the world, “which seemed a little ambitious,” Cronin says with a laugh, “but OK. So for a period of weeks we went through the streets of my suburban Houston neighborhood tossing ideas back and forth, building a story, building characters. It was really just for fun, and it was tremendous fun.”
But it soon became more than that. “By the time the cold weather came and the bike went into the garage, I thought maybe I was on to something. I wrote an outline and was amazed at how much was there. And so I thought, OK, what the hell, let’s write the first chapter, give the book a voice, see how it feels. And it felt terrific.”
Which brings us back to the book’s incredible opening, which was the first part of The Passage that Cronin wrote. “That sentence told me it was going to have this global overview, this very large canvas, which is what I wanted, but it was always going to be an intimate story of people. Once I hammered that one into place, my fate was sealed: I was going to write it.”
Though Iris’ participation ended in 2006, she has now read the book. “It took her a day and a half, that’s the kind of kid she is—she probably read it faster than anyone in America. And she blessed it, which is what I wanted. Everything a man does in his life he does in some ways to impress a girl, and she was the girl I wanted to impress.”
Brimming with memorable characters, action and adventure, the book brings to mind classics like The Stand and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and shows the deep understanding of humanity and literary skill that is also present in Cronin’s earlier works. Cronin says he dared himself to write “a book that rules out no reader,” and The Passage is definitely that.
“One of the things I wanted to do with this book, and the two that will follow, is to write every kind of story I ever loved,” he says. In addition to the post-apocalyptic setting and vampire element, The Passage is a road novel, a coming-of-age story, a thriller and even something of a romance. Last but not least, “it has a runaway train! Everything I think is great in a story, that nails me to my chair, it’s going to find its way into these three books,” promises Cronin, who has plotted out the entire series and is already deep into writing Volume Two, to be published in 2012.
What also finds its way into the story, and what perhaps draws readers to post-apocalyptic fiction, is the hope that humanity can survive even the worst trials. As Cronin explains, the characters in The Passage “live in constant and overwhelming danger, but they have a job, they have families, they form relationships, they have a sense of clan and kin. So the world as we know it has in some way continued. It’s at the brink, and there’s not much left, but it’s there.
“I wanted the reader to know that not all is lost. And then show, within the story, what was worth saving.”
Author photo © Gasper Tringale
An excerpt from The Passage:
Before she became The Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, The First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.
The day Amy was born, her mother, Jeanette, was nineteen years old. Jeanette named her baby Amy for her own mother, who’d died when Jeanette was little, and gave her the middle name Harper for Harper Lee, the lady who’d written To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeanette’s favorite book—truth be told, the only book she’d made it all the way through in high school. She might have named her Scout, after the little girl in the story, because she wanted her little girl to grow up like that, tough and funny and wise, in a way that she, Jeannette, had never managed to be. But Scout was a name for a boy, and she didn’t want her daughter to have to go around her whole life explaining something like that.
Amy’s father was a man who came in one day to the restaurant where Jeanette had waited tables since she turned sixteen, a diner that everyone called the Box, because it looked like one: like a big chrome shoe-box sitting off the county road, backed by fields of corn and beans, nothing else around for miles except a self-serve car wash, the kind where you had to put coins into the machine and do all the work yourself. The man, whose name was Bill Reynolds, sold combines and harvesters, big things like that, and he was a sweet talker who told Jeanette as she poured his coffee and then later, again and again, how pretty she was, how he liked her coal-black hair and hazel eyes and slender wrists, said it all in a way that sounded like he meant it, not the way boys in school had, as if the words were just something that needed to get said along the way to her letting them do as they liked. He had a big car, a new Pontiac, with a dashboard that glowed like a spaceship and leather seats creamy as butter. She could have loved that man, she thought, really and truly loved him. But he stayed in town only a few days, and then went on his way.
Excerpted from The Passage by Justin Cronin
Copyright © 2010 by Justin Cronin. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.