“The Passage” takes a look at the fall of civilization after scientists and the military are unable to contain test subjects who have been infected with a highly contagious virus from a species of bat in South America.
The intent was to develop an immunity-boosting drug. Instead a vampire-like creature was unleashed.
I say vampire-like because in “The Passage” there are blood-sucking monsters lurking in the dark, but author Justin Cronin didn’t write this book with Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, or certainly Twilight in mind.
This is much more gruesome and real.
What initially caught my eye was Cronin graduated from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop – my old school, and home to the premier writing program in America.
Then I started reading the plot line, and was intrigued by how diligently Cronin dissuaded interviewers from characterizing this as a vampire book.
Clearly similarities exist between vampires and these creatures known as “virals,” but they are more a hybrid, a combination of the fury found in werewolves; the detached sickness seen in zombies; and the unquenchable thirst for blood exhibited by vampires.
The story begins in 2014, when scientists travel to South America to locate a species of bat they suspect possesses a virus that will boost human immune systems. The U.S. military funded the project and sent along soldiers for protection, but the bats attack in waves after being discovered, overwhelming the military.
Most on the expedition die from a form of hemorrhagic fever, but two survive, and are brought back to a top-secret lab where the U.S. government begins experiments under the name of “Project Noah,” in an effort to refine the virus.
At first homeless people are used as test subjects but they are so crippled mentally that they are not a reliable source, so the next step is selecting 12 death row inmates, men who are going to be killed anyway, who have no family or attachments left alive.
Cronin goes into some detail about these men, and the strange task two FBI agents share of having to recruit the various prisoners necessary to sign off on becoming test subjects. The trail of each man is slowly erased from existence, until they are all declared dead and brought back to the secure lab in the mountains of Colorado.
Each prisoner is infected and turns into one of these fearsome creatures, with fangs and claws, like a coiled muscle waiting to pounce. They hunch in the shadows waiting…
Interestingly, a silence crept over the camp where Project Noah was located. Gone was the gallows humor, joking and boasting most soldiers used as a coping mechanism to offset the stress in such a tense environment.
The virals possess an ability to infect peoples’ minds with their thoughts, and being these were all death row inmates, their thoughts are not particularly pleasant. Sleep becomes difficult for the soldiers and doctors as the virals poison their dreams, pushing the fatigue factor, and making it easier for the virals to gain control of their minds.
In the meantime the decision is made to try the synthesized virus on a young person. We follow the path of a six-year old girl, Amy Bellafonte (The Girl from Nowhere), who is left at a convent by her struggling mother.
Amy is exposed to a refined version of the serum that was administered to the 12 original inmates, and remains human but picks up an ability to hear and speak with the virals through telepathy.
Once the virals take mental control of the guards, they escape their quarantine cells and quickly kill all in their path. Amy is assisted in escaping by the FBI agents who initially captured her, along with Sister Lacey, who took Amy in at the convent after her mother had left.
One of the agents and Amy head to an old cabin in the mountains, and find safety there, occasionally hearing news of the spreading virus. Eventually the agent succumbs to nuclear fallout, as a human apocalypse ensues between the virals and man.
Amy moves on from the camp after that and lives with other survivors, but they always die, as the virus has slowed her aging process and greatly extended her life.
The story flashes ahead 93 years to an isolationist colony in California of nearly 100 people living at the foot of a mountain behind high walls.
Amy arrives one day appearing to be around 15-years old. This coincides with a break-in at “The Colony” by several virals and Amy is severely wounded by a crossbow. While a normal human would likely have died from such an injury, Amy’s enhanced recuperative powers allow her to heal in a few days.
With the lead viral, Babcock, already mentally poisoning “The Colony” the same way he did the guards’ minds at Project Noah, combined with Amy’s strange ability to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, colony members become suspicious and conspire to cast Amy out.
Preemptively several younger colony members decide it is time to leave this repressive society, and elect to protect Amy and depart together.
Plus there is a hint that life does exist outside the walls, as one colony member has picked up a coded transmission that is emanating from somewhere in Colorado.
Amy manages to keep the travelers relatively safe during their journey. They come across another settlement in Las Vegas that seems welcoming, but “The Haven” turns out to be Babcock’s lair, where he receives blood sacrifices in exchange for allowing the humans to survive.
After a botched attempt at killing Babcock, sympathizers at The Haven assist the colony members in escaping via railroad, and they meet up with a militia group from Texas who assists them in finding the Colorado outpost.
They discover Sister Lacey still living in the compound where Project Noah originated, and that she was infected with the same strain of the virus as Amy.
It is here that Babcock is coming. He feels Amy and knows she is a threat. Babcock and “The Many,” all his infected followers, are seeking her.
At the book’s conclusion the group’s future remains uncertain. What we do know is war is declared on the virals.
“The Passage” is a unique take by Cronin, ambitious in its scope and detail. The hardcover edition is a hefty 766 pages, but what I would characterize as a real “page-turner.”
I found myself stealing moments to read further into this intense adventure, then sharing the updates with my 8 and 9-year old boys, who were fascinated.
His second installment in the trilogy, “The Twelve,” was published in 2012.
“The Passage” is already slated to head to the big screen at some point. Ridley Scott, who directed Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and American Gangster, purchased the rights to the novel in 2007.
Catch it before it becomes a movie, if nothing else to enjoy the experience of having this labyrinth tale unfold inside your mind.