Posted by: thewearyprofessor | September 19, 2009

Book Review: The Strain

Click on Image to Order from Amazon.com

Click on Image to Order from Amazon.com

Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan – The Strain (Book I of The Strain Trilogy) New York: William Morrow, 2009.

The visionary genius behind Pan’s Labyrinth returns to the vampire underworld for the first time since Blade II.

At one point in The Strain a few intrepid vampire hunters cluster around the coffin of the chief bloodsucker and ready their tools for attack before lifting the lid.  “Too easy,” the authors say, and of course it is.  The mastermind is at least one step ahead of them.  This is a familiar moment in the horror genre, one we have all seen in countless books and movies.  It is also indicative of the challenge filmmaker-turned-novelist Guillermo del Toro and his co-author Chuck Hogan face when crafting a vampire novel in the early 21st century. 

Some genres almost collapse under the weight of their own clichés.  Vampire fiction is one of them.  Although far removed from the pulp adventures of Varney the Vampire and the melodramatic pathos of Anne Rice, The Strain is still constrained by the basic ground rules of the class.  Sunlight and decapitation are always bad for the vile creature, while darkness and a box of soil to rest in are always good.  Necking takes on its usual specialized meaning, and there are bound to be the usual sympathetic characters exploring dusty confined spaces with lots of twists and turns.  Predictable?  Certainly.

But would we want it any other way?  As readers and viewers we approach a vampire story with certain expectations, and if they are not fulfilled we seek elsewhere to feed.  For this reason, any discussion of a modern vampire story boils down to this:  How stylishly and well does it take us through the familiar motions?  In the case of The Strain, the answer is masterfully.

Set a barely a year in the future (why even bother?), the book opens with a planeload of corpses arriving at New York’s JFK Airport.  The setting is integral to the vibe of the story.  Since 2001 it’s hard to even think of New York City without recalling explosions, falling towers and plumes of smoke and debris.  Arguably the liveliest city in the world, New York has also sadly become a painful reminder of vulnerability, mortality and sudden death.  

This makes its use here as a convenient locus of residual evil and a natural focal point for demonic activity woefully appropos.  In a similar vein (forgive the pun) as Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend, vampirism is treated as a rapidly spreading biological scourge and the course of the disease outbreak is described vividly.  Rather than vampires relying on the usual extended canine teeth, del Toro and Hogan give their beasts a retractable snakelike appendage that snaps at their prey, draining blood and spreading infection from a distance of several feet.  This lends some originality to the book’s feeding and battle sequences, as these vampires eschew the usual sensuous embracing of their victims or snapping back heads to expose necks.

The novel is carefully plotted, but perhaps too carefully at times.  It seems almost as if each key moment were storyboarded in the infamous idea notebooks del Toro carries with him everywhere and Hogan’s task as prose stylist was to fill in the gaps between images, weaving words between story points.  Yet even with the over-attention to plot there remain several gaps in logic that readers must leap over or ignore.  How, for example, does one vampire overcome the entire crew and passenger complement of a jetliner instantaneously?  How does a wanted man manage to move all over New York using his own mobile phone and credentials without being immediately traced?  These are merely the most obvious concerns.

Some readers may also be disturbed by other authorial choices, and here I must offer a slight spoiler warning.  Skip the rest of this paragraph if you would prefer, like the vampires themselves, to remain entirely in the dark.  The abandoned tunnels beneath and surrounding the World Trade Center site, stockpiled with bodies, comprise the headquarters of the vampires.  The leader is also shown feasting on inmates in Jewish concentration camps.  This commingling of real and imagined horrors may be distasteful to some.

Reportedly The Strain was originally intended as a film or television project.  For whatever reason, it was rejected and del Toro and Hogan molded the material into a trilogy of novels, of which this is the first.  Often betraying its filmic roots, the book’s darkly imaginative images continually unspool in the reader’s mind in succession rather than flowing as natural prose.  Since the reader is expected to feed again on two more books to be released annually, the novel’s ending is less than satisfactory.  It is also rather predictable, and the reader may arrive there before the authors do. 

Still, The Strain is darkly atmospheric fun and is highly recommended for any admirer of del Toro’s cinematic forays or Hogan’s novels, as well as anyone interested in the latest permutations of the vampire mythos.

The Weary Professor pulls out his pen with the blood-red ink and grades this book a B.

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