Regions of Blackness:
Being the busy season that was in it – you know, when you attempt to be vaguely sociable whilst making a reasonable go at a happy face – I had only read a few short stories and a couple of comic books over the Christmas and New Year period. So when the rather stunning cover photograph on the paperback edition of Justin Cronin’s The Passage caught my eye, I paused.
Paused dramatically, since you ask.
And having paused dramatically – there was a rather fetching lady behind the bookstore counter, probably wondering who the constipated-looking weird bloke was – I had a glance at the back, saw blurbs like ‘waves of darkness ready to engulf the world’ and decided that a 1,000 page post-apocalyptic tome was just the thing for starting the New Year on an upbeat note.
What better way to rinse out the taste of the fake bonhomie and ho-ho-ho-ing that had been getting wheeled out since about…oh, August or so.
However, mad fool that I was, I had ignored the quote from Stephen King telling us that this book was nothing less than the greatest discovery of the 21st century…or words to that effect. By now we should all know that Stephen reviews so many books that the time will come when he covers one of his own.
And all of the books that Stephen reviews are masterpieces. All of them.
Except, of course, for the ones that are not.
The Passage is one that is not, although it thinks that it is, as does Stephen; and a remarkable marketing campaign back in 2010 apparently kidded a lot of other people into thinking it was, also. What it is, in fact, is possibly the biggest borefest since Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. Sure, it may only weigh in at around a thousand pages but believe me, it feels like three times that length.
And it was the first part of a now-completed trilogy! God help us all. How on earth did that happen?
Some Misgivings About Involving the Military
The Passage kicks off in an unspecified future, probably around 2022, which I’m basing on a reference to The X-files – the real series, not the current travesty. A Dr. Jonas Lear, whose late wife had a Shakespeare fixation – for no relevant reason except his name – has been messing about in the jungles of Bolivia, looking for a metaphorical Fountain of Eternal Youth. Well, he’s kind of isolated a virus that will let people live forever and – like all basically kind-hearted mad scientists – he’s brought it back to the United States to work on. The Antarctic would possibly have been safer, but what do I know?
And this would be while ignoring the odd nasty side effect like turning its subjects into unhinged, inhuman-looking, bloodsucking zombie-vampires.
Needless to say, the military doesn’t see this in a negative way at all and – having read too many Captain America comics in their childhood – embark on a supersoldier programme, using as guinea pigs twelve violent, murderous, rapist prison inmates who are waiting on death row.
Seems reasonable to me. What could possibly go wrong?
For reasons that are obscure to this rather dim reader – and as the book progressed, I cared less and less – they also want a six-year-old girl that they can ‘disappear’ in order to inject her with more of the virus. In one of the most improbable contrivances in a book that is already bulging with them, young Amy is – before any of these events take place, mark you – already in possession of superhuman abilities.
What are the chances?
Anyway, Amy gets injected with the Forever Serum ( I made that up); our twelve less-than-upright citizens escape, indestructible and both murdering and breeding like billy-o; and in due course the end of the world has taken place after not much more than 250 pages.
Leaving something over 700 pages in which to introduce us to more characters that we don’t particularly care about. It’s now a century on from the events of the apocalypse and we are in a world that we’ll recognise from such end-of-the-world entertainments as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and our Stephen’s own The Stand, to which this book has been bafflingly compared.
Believe me, it’s nothing like The Stand. That book really is a masterpiece. The Passage is…something else. Something that’s perhaps not a masterpiece.
Anyway… Amy is back, now looking about fifteen years of age, despite being about a hundred. And she is a new kind of undead – like, but not like, the ‘Virals’ who now track across a devastated continent.
The Passage has moments of memorable writing; and it occasionally looks as if it is going to tackle really big issues like love and loss in an affecting manner (on one occasion at least it really does so); but the truly annoying thing is that each time it looks to be on the verge of taking off we stop stock still while a piece of endless exposition takes place for page after endless page.
And every character – no matter how irrelevant to the plot (remember plot?) – gets his own backstory. Much of the time this will have nothing at all to do with what we’ve just been reading; but the backstory has to be told, come what may.
Maybe I’m missing something, because I have no idea why these novels are so popular. And don’t even get me going about that ending, at which point the book went sailing across the room in my frustration, nearly taking out the eye of the cat who has been looking at me with THAT SCARY CAT LOOK ever since.
Now I’m unable to sleep easily, what with watching the Princess.
There’s another reason to dislike The Passage.
Like I needed one.