Rice professor Justin Cronin's best-selling postapocalyptic novel The Passage is close to 800 pages, is apparently the first in a trilogy (which I didn't learn until I was almost finished), and incorporates so many loosely connected characters that at times it's maddening, but it was so damned compelling that I couldn't stop reading, plowing through a story I didn't want to start and didn't think I'd finished and now, sadly, I can't wait for the sequel The Twelve to come out in the fall. It's not terribly well-written, at least not compared to the literary style I perhaps prefer, it's too damn long-winded -- going on and on about minor characters or settings or the intracacies of certain scenes that don't require more than a mere mention let alone a dozen pages, and this motherfucking bastard could have easily trimmed a third with some prudent editing, but fuck if I didn't read it every night, devouring the pages like the nightmare vampires inside devour the world. It's a genre story -- part horror, part sci-fi, part Mad Max-esque end of the world stuff, part western -- and I don't like genre stories, or I haven't, not since I was in college and devoured Stephen King like a madman but I'd outgrown those stories and outgrown that sort of fiction and if it weren't for a compelling interview with Mr. Cronin in a literary magazine that I read named Slice, I never would have picked it up. And again, I didn't know it was 800 freaking pages. But I couldn't put it down. So yeah, I guess in the end, I highly recommend.
The basic story certainly parallels King's The Stand, or any of the apocalyptic stories that have populated the genre for a generation. It starts with the events that start in motion the end of the world and then advances to a story of the survivors and the new world they've created. But unlike The Stand and maybe more like the classic I Am Legend, this story's "survivors" are still in danger, even many years later, and their story is what drives this amazing narrative forward. It is a vampire story a la Legend yet these vampires are sort of like something we've never seen in classic literature -- mishappen malformed semi-humans with super-human strength and speed who are almost unstoppable, similar to the vampires in True Blood, minus the good looks and romance and self-awareness crap. What happens in The Passage starts with a team of scientists escorted by the military exploring unexplained disappearances in the jungles of South America. The team is attacked by swarm of bats and then a night later by swarms of "creatures" and one of the only survivors Jonas Lear aims to use one of the "subjects", a colleague, to learn why these creatures exist. The colleague becomes Patient Zero and while Lear is actually hoping to prolong human life (fountain of youth anyone?), the military thinks they can weaponize these creatures becaust they wiped out their whole squad down in the jungle. In order to find more subjects to experiment on, a couple FBI agents, Wolgast and Doyle, are enlisted to go to prisons to "free" death row inmates for use in the trials at a secret location in Colorado. Unfortunately, Lear's new subjects all quickly turn into the creatures -- "vamps" or "smokes" or "dracs" or many other names throughout the novel but let's call a spade a spade, they're vampires. And they don't do well with sunlight or stakes in the heart (Cronin uses the classic vamp lore in the novel). They also have mind-controlling skills and are getting into the dreams of the soldiers and janitors that are around them, worming their way inside while they remain locked up in their impenetrable cages deep down on Level 5 inside the mountain in Colorado. In the meantime Lear thinks he needs a younger, purer subject, and Wolgast and Doyle get their next target -- an abandoned child in a nunnery, a 6-year-old named Amy.
That's the start. And the start takes up about 1/5th of the book. We get a lot about Wolgast and a lot about Amy and a lot about the nuns and a lot about one of the prisoners and a lot about Lear. I always find the "scenario that causes the apocalypse" more fascinating than the rest of these types of stories but here, there was a little too much exposition and not enough action and only bits and pieces of the "end of the world" after the vamps, as expected, escape from their cages. But the novel's second act, which takes place in The Colony in a future world that I won't give away here, is where the novel really begins to gel for me, despite the absence of any characters we've spent the first 150 pages reading about (they're not all dead though, they just don't reappear right away). The eventual story focuses on Peter Jaxon and Michael Fisher and Sara Fisher and Lish and Sanjay Patel and others and is an incredibly fascinating read with almost nonstop action, and the author's literary device of moving points-of-view between characters works better here then in the opening part and really allows the reader in to sympathize with these humans trying to survive in a world in which outsized destruction has left them on their own and death is such a prevalent part of life. The ending I won't get to, and it takes the author probably too long to get to but I actually did wish there were more, as some issues were not fully resolved and are clearly waiting for the next novel. So, again, while this is a recommended novel, also be prepared to have to read 2000+ pages of a trilogy. Or you could just watch the movie (it's supposedly coming in 2013).