Call me morbid, but I love tales of the end of days: nuclear, environmental, biochemical, pandemic - I’m not choosy. There’s only one kind of apocalypse I could never get behind: the zombie apocalypse.
First of all, the tropes seem too ridiculous and cliched - I mean, why do the undead always shamble along with their arms out in front of them? And why do they have to be so dirty? I know eating brains is probably a messy business but how difficult is a quick wash of the face and hands?
I got tricked into reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage by a blurb which promised ‘an epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival.’ Though most zombie books leave you in absolutely no doubt as to their contents, there was not even a whiff of the dreaded Z word around this novel.
Still, the novel is hardly my usual fare. It begins as the sorry tale of a secret military experiment aimed at ‘weaponising’ humans by infecting them with the blood of a Bolivian bat. The test subjects - twelve death-row inmates - develop the expected superhuman strength and agility. Unfortunately, they also develop some unanticipated powers, including mental telepathy, which enables them to manipulate their guards and escape the test compound, after which they embark on a blood-drinking rampage, sparing each tenth victim who they infect with a scratch thereby signing them up for their army of ‘virals’.
By this point, I was in no doubt that I was reading a novel about the zombie apocalypse (although, if you want to get technical - as some people always do - Cronin’s virals are not true zombies, as they are converted while still alive, rather than being reanimated after death. In fact, at a glance, the virals have more in common with vampires: they drink blood, avoid light, and can only be killed by a projectile through the chest. On the other hand, vampires are frequently depicted as handsome and charming and Cronin’s virals are anything but, lacking speech, debonair cloaks and table manners).
What kept me reading was that The Passage departs from the traditional fare in a number of interesting ways. Firstly, because zombies are, by definition, brain-dead, character development is challenging. But before they achieved full zombie status, I had got to know Cronin’s characters through their telepathic communication with their guards. I knew the crimes they had committed that had led to them being convicted, their regrets or justifications for their crimes. I felt pity for them, compassion, sometimes horror. They were not faceless monsters: they were real people who became monsters and that made them infinitely more interesting to me:
They were calling him Number Twelve. Not Carter, or Anthony or Tone, though he was so sick now, lying alone in the dark, that those names and the person they referred to seemed like somebody else, not him. A person who had died, leaving only this sick writhing form in his place.
The sickness felt like forever. That’s the word it made him think of. Not that it would last forever; more that he was sick with time itself. Like the idea of time was inside him, in each cell of his body, and time wasn’t an ocean, like somebody had told him once, but a million tiny wicks of flame that would never be extinguished.
The Passage also differs from other zombie apocalypse tales in that it moves far beyond the initial outbreak, exploring the variety of ways in which pockets of uninfected survivors carve out a life alongside the virals, almost a century after the outbreak:
If the person wasn’t dead, if they’d been taken up, they always came home… Most were Watchers, taken on scavenging parties or trips to the power station, or else riders with the herd, or the heavy Duty crews, who went outside to log or do repairs or drag garbage to the dump. Even in broad daylight people were killed or taken; you were never really safe as long as the virals had shade to move in.
Many… were fully taken up by the time they returned; others appeared in the midst of their quickening, sick and shuddering, tearing the clothes from their bodies as they stumbled into view… Most just stood there at the gate, blinking into the spotlights, waiting for the shot. Peter supposed that some part of them still remembered being human well enough to want to die.
Justin Cronin wrote two works of literary fiction before he wrote The Passage, his debut novel The Summer Guest and the gorgeous and deeply moving novel-in-stories Mary and O’Neill. So though The Passage is undoubtedly a ‘genre’ novel, it is much more than that: a beautifully written, character-driven study of human behaviour in desperate times. It also happens to be so insanely suspenseful it will keep you up way past your bedtime. You may even find yourself prowling the bookshops, waiting for the sequel, like a zombie lying in wait for their next human brain.
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in Southerly, Westerly, Wheeler Dailies and Junkee. She holds a PhD in Writing, is an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellow, and is a member of the editorial board of Margaret River Press. Her digital interactive novel/app The Ark has just been released. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.