Justin Cronin’s story about a virus that transforms humans into blood-drinking killers more than lives up to its hype

Back in 2007 when I was working at The Bookseller, I wrote a story about “an exhaustive 13-round, nine-publisher auction for Justin Cronin’s The Passage”. I remember that there hadn’t been any mega book deals for a while, so it really stood out. Orion paid a (rumoured – publishers will never admit to exact amounts) £900,000-plus sum for the book and two sequels. “An epic, apocalyptic vampire novel set in the near future, where medical experiments have created a plague of vampires”, it sounded right up my street.

But there were loads of vampire books lining up for the next few years, thanks to a certain Ms Meyer. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain didn’t do much for me, and I couldn’t believe that The Passage would live up to the hype surrounding it.

And hype there certainly is. Film rights were bought by Ridley Scott, and in the US, where it was published on Tuesday, there’s been shed loads of press. Not least a a New York Times interview for Cronin, a glowing review in Time (“The Passage can stand proudly next to Stephen King’s apocalyptic masterpiece The Stand, but a closer match would be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”), and a prediction from the Huffington Post that the Passage “may be the book of the summer”.

Possibly most helpful of all, though: as Cronin was being interviewed on Good Morning America earlier this week, the show received a call from Stephen King, who told the surprised literary novelist (whose first two books have sold around 74,000 copies, according to the NYT) that he’d successfully “put the scare back into vampires”.

“I really love your book. It’s terrific and I hope it sells a million copies,” said King, as Cronin’s eyes got wider and wider. “It’s got everything in it, wonderful characters, and it’s just a terrific read from beginning to end – I can’t think of a better book in the summertime.”

Stop reading now if your summer holiday book lineup consists of literary prize winners and proper biographies, steering clear of the blockbuster end of the market, but for me there’s nothing better than a whopping great brick of post-apocalyptic fiction. And, after reading solidly for about three days on holiday last month, I can report that The Passage fits the bill perfectly. I haven’t been so buried in a book for ages.

Cronin’s vampires are found in the jungles of Bolivia. The US army decides it’d be an excellent idea to use them as weapons, experimenting on death row prisoners with the vampire virus. But surprise, surprise: turns out this is not such a genius plan. Things quickly go from bad to worse, and the virus which creates vampires spreads across the States. We follow the story of Amy, a six-year-old girl abandoned by her prostitute mother at a convent, who will have a key role to play in this new, devastated America.

The first part of The Passage, set in present-day America, is great. But the novel really gets going when we jump into the future, to an empty California where a small community is holding out against the “virals”. There’s explosive action – a scene where the humans are escaping by train had me point blank refusing to talk to anyone until it was done – and I lapped up Cronin’s bleak vision of the future. As did Eric Brown in Saturday’s Review.

So, I agree with Stephen. The Passage (out in a couple of weeks in the UK) is perfect summer reading and I thoroughly recommend it. My problem is that I’ve already read it, so my question to you is, what can I pack instead? A gloomy, thoroughly bleak, post-apocalyptic story is what I’m after – and preferably, it should be big (The Passage weighs in at almost 800 pages and I like that in a novel). I’m not entirely wedding to dystopian futures, however – if it’s good enough, I might be tempted out of this small literary niche. So please share your top holiday reading recommendations, as well as what you’re planning to take away with you: my holiday’s in August, but I’m already thinking about what to pack …

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