Seeing as Deanna (who was busy invading Vancouver at the weekend under the pretense of attending Book Camp) reviewed P+P+Z last week, I feel like I should get off my tardy British ass and write my long overdue review of The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan.
And it’s probably best to just put this out there: I am a big nerd and even though I am representing the Zombie Nation, I have a giant man-crush on the vampiro’s main guy Guillermo.
In my defence, my geek-love for Del Toro pre-dates his novel and his Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth. It even pre-dates his movie adaptation of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy who we apparently share a minor obsession with.
Yes I saw Hellboy on opening weekend. But I’ve seen all Del Toro’s English language movies multiple times (yes, including Blade II), and I have even seen his 1993 Spanish language movie Cronos more than once (really!). In fact it was Chronos and 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone that got me hooked on Del Toro’s modern spins on magic and monsters in the first place. I’ve never looked back.
All of which is really just a long way of saying I was kind of excited about reading The Strain. Even though I knew it was a vampire novel…
The book was co-authored with thriller writer Chuck Hogan, and I read on io9 that it started life as a TV series pitch to FOX, which is not hard to believe – at times it feels like CSI meets The X-Files (or whatever that new show like The X-Files-but-not-The X-Files is) with vampires. You can almost feel 24’s digital countdown on every page of the book.
As it happens, I actually read it on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver and so I was not thrilled that the story begins with the discovery of that almost everyone including the crew from Flight 753 from Berlin is dead – apparently killed on, or shortly before, landing at JFK (cue nervous shuffling and sideways glances on AC103 to YVR…)
The emergency team despatched to the mysterious incident is lead by workaholic biohazard expert Ephraim Goodweather, who on finding four survivors swiftly despatches them to an isolation unit in downtown New York.
An unidentified virus looks the likely cause, and Goodweather tries to identify the source and contain the outbreak. But despite his best efforts, a dark conspiracy led by sickly billionaire Palmer Eldritch (basically Mr Burns from The Simpsons) ensures the survivors are released. More surprisingly the dead apparently rise from the morgue and go home. The plague is unleashed.
Fortunately help is at hand in the form of the Van Helsing-esque holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian who, aside from running a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem, has a very tooled up basement and moonlights as a vampire hunter. It is Setrakian who explains the origin of the epidemic is Jusef Sardu, an ancient vampire.
Sardu, it turns out, is more like Blade II’s Jared Nomak than Count Dracula. An outcast even among vampires, he has broken all sorts of ancient laws and come to America, and the ‘virus’ he carries is in fact a blood parasite that quickly reshapes the internal organs of anyone unfortunate enough to be infected. Blood turns to white goo. The dead are reanimated. Their appetite is insatiable. And, needless to say Goodweather and Setrakian only have hours to save civilization (huzzah!).
So far, so fast paced. The clock ticks. Lives are endangered. Obstacles are thrown in the way (bwa-ha-ha!). Rulebooks are thrown out. Unexpected heroes arise. Swords are drawn. Nail guns are weaponised. And the vampires (in true Del Toro fashion*) head down to the subway. The villain is confronted in his lair…
But is it any good? Well, yes and no.
It is a merciful relief that the book is more Nosferatu than Edward or Angel. The horror is definitely ramped up and for the most part we are in no doubt that the vampires are bad guys who eat people rather than preppy teenagers worried about their hair. And I would like to say (before I am kicked out of the zombie fraternity forever) that as a result, the leech-like vampires in The Strain – like the reapers in Blade II and the vamps in I Am Legend – have more than a passing resemblance to zombies. They are not romantic lost souls of Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, or Twilight. They are infected and possessed, congregating in hives and mindless (and unstoppable) in their pursuit of food.
The debt to Blade II is, in fact, apparent throughout The Strain, and Del Toro’s fingerprints are definitely all over the novel (even his role in its actual writing was limited). His obsession with folklore, monsters, epidemics and the darkness-that-lurks, is all there and the book is all the better for it (says the fan boy).
Hogan, for his part, keeps thing tight. Clearly revelling in procedural details and fast pacing, he draws heavily on the familiar keystones of modern cop dramas (hello courageous misunderstood mavericks, divorced-but-loving dads, workaholism, incompetent bureaucrats, evil lawyers, etc etc). He champions his honest, hardworking blue-collar heroes (like the nanny who steals away the children from her infected employer, and pest controller Vasily Fet), and takes great pleasure in the gradual infection and annihilation of a gated-community full of universally unpleasant, wealthy, golf-playing narcissists.
But, while The Strain demonstrates that a gritty police procedural vampire novel has great potential, I’m just not sure it quite seals the deal. Perhaps it’s a result of the dual authorship? Certainly the marriage between the book’s TV cop show tropes and Del Toro’s folkloric themes is, at times, an awkward one. Both strands feel underdeveloped, and ultimately the need to keep things moving overwhelms Del Toro’s vision (often reduced to clunky exposition).
The story is weighed down with a cast of thousands. Do we need to follow FOUR survivors through their infection? No, we really don’t (you’re turning into a vampire –it’s bad for you and us – we get it already). And although Hogan wants to keep the action rolling, he — or perhaps Del Toro — introduces too many incidental characters to care about. Like Blade II‘s all too expendable Bloodpace, they clutter the place up. I simply did not care whether most of the characters bought it or not. There are hints that some will become important later in the story – like the (unfortunately dull) teenage petty criminal Gus Elizade – and although this approach might have worked in a weekly TV series (where character development could happen over a number of episodes), too many characters seem like cardboard cut outs here.
And, without revealing too much, I’ve got to say that I felt cheated by the ending, which, in attempting to set up the sequel, is somewhat under-climatic.
Still, The Strain is an efficient, diverting horror thriller even if it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. I guess there’s always book two and three… (In which the vampires can be revealed to be Jane Austen appreciating zombies).
* Del Toro is obsessed with monsters in subways, which is not good for my early morning commute (or late nights home). Don’t believe me? Not only do the vampires in The Strain head for the NY Transit system, the giant bugs in Mimic hide in the subway. Where are the demons breeding in Hellboy? Wait for it… under the subway… And so it goes on.