Posted on May 18, 2009 by JLaSala
The soon-to-be-released horror novel The Strain (book 1 of The Strain Trilogy), written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, might be aptly summed up with this tiny excerpt:
Gus remembered the look on the fat man’s face, blank and hungry. His white blood. “What—like a pinche zombie?”
Setrakian said, “Think more along the lines of a man with a black cape. Fangs. Funny accent.” He turned his head so that Gus could hear him better. “Now take away the cape and fangs. The funny accent. Take away anything funny about it.”
Why did I read this book? Because (1) I was fortunate enough to acquire an advanced copy, (2) it’s about vampires, and (3) one of the authors is Guillermo. Del Toro! That’s right, the acclaimed and quixotic director of movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy 2, The Orphanage…and in a few years the much-anticipated The Hobbit.
Here’s the thing. The Strain is a vampire book, and with that comes certain assumptions; I was initially dismayed by this fact, because while I love vampires I’m not always happy with the way they’re portrayed. In fact, I wish the back cover copy of this book didn’t come right out and mention vampires precisely because it doesn’t feel like a vampire story most of the time and it would have been a nice surprise once I’d realized it. But I wasn’t disappointed. Del Toro and Hogan have changed the rules. This isn’t some lovey-dovey Twilight-like story with brooding, romantic vampires. And it’s nothing like Anne Rice’s Chronicles, either, which feature beautiful immortals with pearlescent skin and eternal youth. No way. I don’t want to give too much away, but the creatures introduced in this book are an inventive mixture of some of the more horrifying aspects of the genre. Guillermo himself speaks of his intentions in this hilariously informative video.
Interesting ideas and ghoulish creatures are all well and good, but it was the storytelling, the style, and the characters that made this an engaging read. It takes place in New York City, and the book’s protagonists include a specialist from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), an old Jewish pawnshop owner, a Mexican hoodlum, and a pest exterminator. All of them are likeable and well-developed (even in so short a time), with enough diversity among them that different readers might pick different favorites. But it’s not solely the main characters that make the story so unique. Vampirism in The Strain threatens to become a plague on all humanity, and the first round of infected—let’s call them the supporting cast—gives us, the readers, a personal, inside look at the transformation from their point of view. It’s frightening, visceral, and disgusting, and adds serious tension to the story.
Is this a book without flaws? Not at all. There were moments where I found it harder to suspend disbelief, especially as a New Yorker. I found the protagonists’ ability to move around Manhattan to be unrealistically quick and expedient, especially in the midst of a monstrous viral outbreak. If authors wanted to be realistic, the heroes would get held up on the number 2 train while they’re off trying to save the day, probably struck in the subway somewhere in Midtown, due to “track congestion” or “signal problems.” How many times has my train been stalled by a “sick passenger”? I’ve lost count. (Sick passenger…that would have been a good opportunity for a story like this.) I was also disappointed that the book didn’t really show the public’s view of the events. What did everyone think was going on? What were the major networks saying about the horrific attacks taking place? How televised was the crisis? The story takes a more insular perspective, sticking only with the central and secondary characters. I wanted to see more than that, but that’s not what Hogan and del Toro wanted to show. That’s their call. Likely the next in the trilogy will have to address some of this.
In my opinion, this is still a great book. 4.5 out of 5 bulbs of garlic on the vampire scale. It dismisses contemporary and overdone trends on the genre, taking a biological-yet-oldschool stance on vampirism and dropping it straight into New York City—even as it gears up for a more global threat. The story also contains a number of charming Dracula parallels—in names, professions, and even conveyances—which started off feeling like story theft but ended up feeling more like homage (and so I approve). In fact, much of the vampire lore is drawn right out of Eastern European, relayed to the central protagonist by a Holocaust survivor (the aforementioned Jewish pawnshop owner) who’s dealt with the creatures before; an obvious Van Helsing counterpart, this guy. Although there are dashes of humor thrown into the mix, this book is largely serious and unsettling and will likely become even more so with the next installment. The authors even made use of the altered, post-9/11 landscape of Manhattan, not merely as a backdrop but as a focal point. As someone who was working in the World Trade Center on 9/11, I can appreciate the gravity of such a bold stance.
The book is slated for release on June 2nd in the States, and I highly recommend picking it up.
In the back of my mind, I’m wondering if del Toro will one day turn this into a movie. Sort of a 28 Days Later meets 30 Days of Night meets Resident Evil, but no doubt made uniquely his own. If so—and as long as he does so only after tending to The Hobbit—I’ll be in the middle row on opening night with a bag of gummy cola bottles.
Review by Jeff LaSala