Thanks to a certain YA phenomenon, the word “vampire” can barely be taken seriously anymore. Where once they were considered cool, sexy and dangerous, now they’re the butt of lots of jokes about sparkling. In a post Twilight world, it’s hard to imagine that vampires can ever be scary again. Or at least it would be were it not for the existence of Justin Cronin’s Passage Trilogy.
It’s hard to know where to begin when describing this series, so I’ll start with the stuff that would seem hyperbolic if it wasn’t true. The three books that make up Cronin’s saga, The Passage, The Twelve,and The City Of Mirrors comprise a modern horror masterpiece. Dizzying in scope and ambition, the trilogy is packed with vivid characters, thoughtful mediations on what it is to be human, heart-pounding action and a pulsating sense of dread and mounting tension that permeates every page. Since the release of the first novel in 2010 they have topped bestseller lists and garnered quite a following; Ridley Scott bought the film rights and at one-point Matt Reeves was attached to direct. There is a sense as you read this series that you are witnessing the creation of a modern classic, one that reclaims the very notion of vampirism from the realm of YA romances, strips away the sexy appeal, and makes the undead bloodsuckers legitimately terrifying once again.
At its heart the trilogy is a post-apocalyptic epic, but even this very broad description feels reductive. Starting roughly in the present day, the series follows an abandoned young girl named Amy as she becomes an unwitting test subject in an attempt to use an ancient Bolivian virus that may be the source of the vampire myth to create a perfect super soldier. Amy’s story unfolds against the backdrop of this ill-advised experiment, which quickly goes wrong when the twelve death row inmates who were the primary test subjects get loose and use their newfound powers to wreak all kinds of havoc. Cue a century-long time jump into a future where humanity is all but decimated, surviving in tiny pockets against a world of Virals, vampiric creatures presided over by the Twelve; the worst of humanity given chilling psychic powers and beastly appetites. When the apparently immortal Amy crosses paths with a group of ragtag survivors, a desperate quest to save the world and defeat the Twelve begins, a quest in which Amy, The Girl From Nowhere, may be the only chance of victory.
It sounds like a pretty straightforward “save the world” narrative, and in some ways it is. But Cronin keeps things surprising throughout; the series regularly jumps both back and forwards in time. We get glimpses of a new world a thousand years in the future, a world where the now mythologised events of the main storyline are being studied by historians, and both the second and third books start with a jump back to before the spread of the virus, in extended narrative detours that give crucial context to events we thought we already understood. It’s this constant enrichment of the storyline that gives the trilogy its weight and depth, showing us key events from the perspectives of the past, present and future, exploring in the process the ways in which we craft the myths and legends that underpin our society, how those stories inform our lives and teach us what it is to be human.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about this horror trilogy is just how much it has on its mind. The third book in particular is packed with haunting and thought-provoking but ultimately beautiful considerations on the things that make us who we are, how love can both destroy us and give life meaning, how even in the darkest times the fundamental goodness of humanity can turn pain into victory. Certain moments in the final book bring a tear to the eye, moments that are so earned because of the wealth of established history that leads to them. Like the best conclusions, The City Of Mirrors not only reshapes our understanding of the earlier instalments but makes it clear exactly what story we’ve been reading all along, in a way that is both surprising and fitting. It is satisfying, powerful, brilliant stuff.
The scope of the trilogy is staggering at times. We see characters grow from scared kids to brave heroes, going on to become parents, then grandparents, then legends. The weight of the past and how it can chart our way forwards is never far from Cronin’s mind, and the importance of family is a huge theme in the trilogy, both the immediacy of loved ones around us and the history of the ancestors who gave us life. Even the worst villain of the series is haunted by his past and the legacy he will leave behind.
Perhaps inevitably in a series as vast and all-encompassing as this, the Passage Trilogy is not perfect. The prose is occasionally overwritten, and at moments in the second book Cronin appears to misplace his talent for dynamic and interesting villains, creating instead a parade of grim, over-the-top brutality that manages to be both hard to read and less impactful than it should be. Additionally the convenience of The Twelve’s climax feels sloppy and anticlimactic compared to the first book; however upon starting the final volume these missteps are quickly forgiven. If the ending of part two was too easy, it was only because The City Of Mirrors has no intention of making anything simple for its characters, and the ultimate denouement of the series is as wrenching, heartbreaking and spectacular as anyone could hope for.
If anything, it is the strength of the trilogy as a whole that makes the flaws stand out. It is almost inevitable that later villains would pale in comparison to Giles Babcock, the big bad of book one and one of the most unsettling villains in recent memory, a monster whose insidious menace will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. Babcock is a prime example of Cronin’s skill with knowing when to show and when to hold back; we barely see him over the course of The Passage, yet his presence and influence always looms. Likewise Timothy Fanning, Patient Zero, the Master of the Master Virals is a character we know next to nothing about until his eventual unveiling in the final book, an unveiling that both exceeds and subverts expectations, turning everything we thought we knew on its head and making us go back to the early chapters of The Passage with a whole new understanding of how the horror got started. It’s this kind of meticulously planned storytelling that makes it clear at the end just how much Cronin has known what he was doing from the first sentence.
But it’s the presence of Amy at the heart of the series that holds the whole thing together. An enigmatic figure who manages to be a symbol of hope, a messianic savior and a scared young girl all at once, we both start and end with Amy, her tragedy being that she will perpetually endure while the people she loves die around her. Her arc is the foundation that allows the narrative and thematic complexity to build without ever becoming too unwieldy, the spine around which this sprawling, fascinating and exciting story can grow as Cronin populates his huge cast with more and more colourful figures, people we can easily care about, mourn when they fall and miss when they’re gone.
In fact, apart from one or two of the villains, every character in the series feels like a fully realized person. From gentle-until-crossed giant Hollis to the tough and cocky warrior Alicia to pragmatic wanderer Michael to the steely yet warm Sara to the reluctant Master Viral Carter, there’s a sense that we have seen the whole lives of these people unfold, and saying goodbye at the end of the trilogy becomes a tough proposition.
Another benefit of the huge time span is that Cronin not only creates a rich post-apocalyptic world, but allows it to develop as the decades pass and the threats ebb, grow and change. While the politics of these surviving human communities never take centre stage, there is a sense of a society with different factions and conflicts always bubbling under the surface. In some ways the trilogy takes its stylistic cues more from classic westerns than horror, as characters try to survive in the new frontier of a lawless and dangerous America populated by both literal monsters and violent opportunists. In fact, across the board Cronin has a strong understanding of the genres he blends and subverts, from gothic horror to science fiction to dystopian nightmares and it’s this deft navigating of many different terrains that gives the trilogy much of its life and color. The success of the series isn’t surprising when you think about it; there’s something in here for just about everyone.
In this day and age the word “epic” is as overused as the word “vampire” is mocked, but in the Passage trilogy Justin Cronin has reclaimed them both. These three books form a story that comfortably deserves its place on bookshelves besides The Lord Of The Rings, A Song Of Ice And Fire, Wheel Of Time or whatever other sprawling, brilliant, imaginative saga you care to name. And while the film adaptation cannot come fast enough, in the meantime fans of genre fiction need to do themselves a favor and read these books.
This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.