The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “The Passage” by Justin Cronin

Vampires aren’t just for teenagers and adolescents-at-heart any longer. With The Passage , a brick of a novel just asking to be devoured in a hurry, Justin Cronin reintroduces us to vampires who aren’t the sexy, chivalrous immortals of Twilight and True Blood . Cronin’s vampires are savage beasts who will rip out the throats of their closest loved ones once they’ve “turned.” How nice to get acquainted with supernatural killers who adhere to the old-school rules of their kind .

In the near future, they are unleashed upon the United States, or perhaps the world-it’s unclear how far the infection has taken hold-by an ill-conceived military experiment attempting to produce immortality. Ill-conceived, indeed: Not only does the Army purposely infect subjects with a virus known to create uncontrollable, super-powered killers; it selects death-row inmates as guinea pigs: just the guys to whom you want to give immortality and bloodlust. After the vampires make their inevitable escape from the testing site, the military mounts a frantic, fruitless campaign to save some portion of the country. But then the story picks up a century later, where we find a 100-person colony living in fear, unsure whether there are any other humans out there, with just crossbows and high-powered lights to keep them safe from the night stalkers. But! Salvation may exist in the form of a seemingly immortal young girl, one of the only noncriminals subjected to the virus testing, who appears from nowhere, bringing both hope and horror to the sorry little outpost of humanity.

It sounds like a cliché horror tale, and many elements are certainly tired: At times, The Passage seems to be a mish-mash of 28 Days Later and The Road , with a dash of a higher-body-count Harry Potter . But Cronin’s story-telling makes it tempting to ignore, or at least forgive, the more familiar aspects. Told partially by scraps that seemingly survive the “infection period”-an old woman’s journal telling her story of escape from an infected city; e-mails from the initial expedition that unearthed the disease-and bouncing between different locations and characters, Cronin keeps you guessing and unsure; just as you get to know a character, he’s gone, and you have a new guide. The ending is disappointing, as it lays the foundation for a sequel or two. Still, The Passage is an engrossing page-turner, and isn’t that what we need in late July?