By Michelle Griffin
ADMIT it, the best storytelling in the past decade has been on TV, not in novels. Tired genres such as the cop show, the western, and sci-fi have been reinvented by serials such as The Wire, Deadwood or Battlestar Galactica. These dramas harnessed multiple storylines, complex characters and big themes to narrative arcs that took years to resolve - yet kept viewers hooked with the punchy immediacy TV episodes demand.
So when I say that reading this post-apocalyptic epic is like bingeing on a DVD box set, it's a good thing. The Passage is engrossing, ambitious and fun. While TV show True Blood helped rehabilitate vampires' reputations after their dignity was severely eroded by the Twilight series' sparkly Romeos, Cronin goes further: he's made vampires scary again.
It's a long time before we see the first one, glowing phosphorescent in an observation chamber at a secret underground military base.
Monsters feed off suspense - Cronin understands that the less we see of them, the more agonising the wait.
These vampires are not introspective aristocrats. They're closer to zombies, humans infected with a mutated bat virus that works like Ebola crossed with swine flu. Those it doesn't kill, it transforms into unthinking mobs of muscle and fang who can only be killed - that's right - by a shot to the heart.
Much has been made of Cronin's pedigree as a PEN/Hemingway award-winning graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, and it shows: his prose is elegant, his dialogue believable, and he infuses many scenes with unforced melancholy. Long before the virus lays waste to the US, he gives us characters haunted by death: of a father, a wife, a daughter.
This grand apocalyptic fantasy starts with the story of just one life falling apart in an unspectacular way: a young waitress falls pregnant, loses her father, her job, her house and eventually starts turning tricks on the highway while her daughter sleeps in the motel room's bath.
Her decline and fall is interspersed with emails sent from the Amazon by a scientist whose field trip is about to go horribly wrong, and the story of two federal agents driving to Texas to recruit death-row inmates for classified medical experiments.
By the time these narratives converge, Cronin's book has mutated from fine-grained realism into a heightened supernatural thriller with nightmare scenarios and flashes of telepathy.
Freed from the shackles of small-town realism, Cronin skips through genres as if he were changing channels: biomedical thriller, supernatural adventure, disaster memoir, road novel, frontier western and epic quest.
Like the remnant community of humans introduced in Part Three, Cronin scavenges from the past to cobble together something new: there are elements of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, but also Stephen King and Michael Crichton, 28 Days Later and The Wire, Damien and His Dark Materials.
While many, including Stephen King, compare The Passage to King's bulky Armageddon novel, The Stand, Cronin's take is distinguished by its refusal to cast the end of the world as a struggle between good and evil.
There is a mystic quest and a chosen child, but the book is notably reluctant to see characters as bad or good guys, although most are flawed, some are weak and a few are criminally insane. Even the vampires, snarling from the shadows, are as pathetic as they are terrifying.
Chapters fly by before you ask any questions about the girl fated to save the world, and by the time you realise the author has started breaking his own rules, it's too late: you're hooked.
In the book's battle to fuse literary style to populist narrative, the storytelling drive ultimately overwhelms nuance, but hell, there isn't much point carping about implausibility in a post-apocalyptic vampire epic.
Ridley Scott's already bought the movie rights - there is a vampirey Gladiator scene - but boiled down to film length, The Passage would lose its potency. If Cronin's gifts were all for plot, this would be another ludicrous airport potboiler, but he's reintroduced a satisfying complexity to the supernatural thriller. It would work better on the small screen, in a long playing drama made by HBO. That I would totally watch.
Michelle Griffin is Age arts editor.show more
by Wayne Dwyer