King, the master of the set-up, would have recognised an equal at work in the first 250 pages of The Passage as Cronin plots an intricate, breathless and ultimately devastating opening that establishes a grip on the pysche as tight as anything I can remember. He would recognise too the last 300 or so pages, which read almost as a homage to The Stand, King's great post-Apocalypse epic, in which small bands of survivors of a viral holocaust embark upon a cross-continent oddysey in preparation for a final battle.
And then there are the last couple of pages, and an ending so chilling I couldn't sleep for two hours after reading it and just could not shake it from my head for days. There is, apparently, a sequel on its way. It cannot come soon enough for me. My need to read on is so acute it is almost a physical ache.
Put simply, King would recognise a fellow craftsman at work. The Passage has been expertly plotted and superbly written by Cronin, whose previous literary works did little to suggest he was likely to be the writer who would reset the standard for the modern horror/sci-fi epic.
Which is not to say that The Passage is perfect. There is a long spell in the middle when the narrative slows to an unnecessary crawl and the story almost stalls, but what goes before is so good and what comes after so powerful that Cronin can be forgiven for this temporary lapse in the very highest standards of story-telling.
So what is The Passage? It is a vampire story, for sure, but not in the way that readers of Stephanie Meyer - or even Bram Stoker - would understand it. These vampires are relentless killing machines, scientifically enhanced humans with extraordinary physical capabilities but stripped of all other human attributes. (The only teen romance on show here is the sort that war time lovers might recognise: stolen moments, heightened passions and hasty couplings given urgency by the lack of certainty that there would be a next time).
And it is science fiction. The virus that ultimately wipes out most of North American civilisation comes from a military experiment, which attempts to harness the speed and power of a species of south American bat.
And this is how The Passage starts- with a chilling series of emails deep in the Bolivian jungle from a scientist, accompanied by soldiers, seeking bats. Each email is more frightened and alarming than the previous one. The last one simply reads: "Now I know why the soldiers are here."
The bats are clearly secured as the next act has a couple of FBI agents covering the continental US offering death row inmates a commutation of their sentence in return for a life of unspecified service to the government. That service is unspecified because even men on death row would probably shy away from taking part in an experimental vaccination program that would transform them into a cross between Count Dracula and the The Terminator.
Needless to say - no spoiler this - something goes very horribly wrong and the 12 infected men are let loose on an unprepared world. But not before the FBI agents have picked up a 13th test subject, a young girl by the name of Amy, who is vaccinated with a different strain of the virus. While she picks up some of the characteristics of the 12, she is a benign presence marked out as saviour rather than destroyer.
The second segment of The Passage - and the weakest - reminded me of M Night Shymalan's The Village - except that in this instance there really is something lethal and violent lurking outside the walls. About a century after the fall of civilisation, a small group of surivors is huddled into a large compound protected from the "vampires" prowling outside by high walls and light drawn from fading batteries and other power sources. Their's is a precarious existence - totally dependent on keeping the lights glowing at night. There are some fascinating aspects to this slow burn narrative. The development of the new society within the walls, its laws and its mores is well constructed.
The development of the leading characters is also well judged: Peter the quiet grafter; Alisha, the feisty fighter; Sara the nurse and Michael the electrician. These are people that Cronin needs the reader to care about as on their fate lies all the tension in the final third of the book.
In this third segment, these four lead a small exodus from the safety of the compound - a journey aimed at finding further outposts of humnaity and uncovering secrets that might help them live a safer and less claustrophobic existence.
From the moment of their departure The Passage regains the breathless urgency of its opening and immediately begins boiling up towards a dramatic and extraordinary finale.
And throughout, Cronin writes with assurance and control, building both suspense and intrigue. By the heart-stopping close I was genuinely shocked to discover just how much I cared about the fate of one of the characters: by that stage the story was deep under my skin.
I have read reviews of The Passage that suggest it is a political allegory for modern America (building walls around it to keep out all-comers), that it is anti-science, pro-Mormonism and all sorts of other theories. It could be that there is something in some of this, but that is not what I came away from the book with. Ultimately I was entranced by a somewhat simple human story - the struggle for existence - albeit one with a supernatural twist.
The Passage is a dramatic, moving and compelling and I recommend it very highly.
But did it live up to the pre-publishing hype? To my great surprise, it did. And that is a tremendous achievement, because few books in recent times have come with the same extraordinary pre-billing as this one.