Guillermo Del Toro has been making the press rounds lately promoting his new vampire book, The Strain, which dropped last week. Since I’m a fan of Del Toro’s films I was excited to read it. Mostly I was interested to see if Hogan would be able to translate Del Toro’s distinctive aesthetic to the page. The answer is, not really, but it’s still a good read.
It opens with the legend of Jusef Sardu, the master villain of the book, as told to Abraham Setrakian by his grandmother. It’s creepy and an effective way to establish the outlines of what we’re dealing with while tantalizing the reader with mysterious details. The introduction to Setrakian is key, as his history of fighting Sardu, told in periodic interludes marked by a special border on the bottom of the page, is the richest part of the story, and the most in line with Del Toro’s other work. Having a vampire feed off prisoners awaiting death in a concentration camp seems particularly Pan’s Labyrinthine.
After the legend, we move to the air traffic control tower at JFK airport. A transatlantic flight from Germany has landed safely but stopped dead on the taxiway. We watch the mystery unfold from the point-of-view of about 30,000 airport and rescue workers, most of whom we’ll never see again, until we finally meet our protagonist, Dr. Eph Goodweather, a doctor and the head of the CDC’s Canary Project to respond to bioterrorism and biological threats. He has a clichéd backstory; his wife is divorcing him because he’s married to his job and he’s fighting desperately for custody of his son, Zach. Of course he’s with Zach when he’s called to the airport. He’s also having a sometime affair with his colleague Nora, so things are awkward there.
Moving from the prologue to the main focus of the book slows things down. It takes too long to solve the mystery of the dead plane, especially since we already know what killed everyone (vampire), and what was in the dirt filled coffin (it was a vampire), and why the corpses disappeared (they’re vampires!), and why the surviving pilot attacked his team of doctors(Oh my God, he’s a VAMPIRE!). But once that’s all settled and we have our team of heroes—Setrakian, Eph, and Nora—in place, things move along nicely, with Setrakian explaining the history and folklore behind the outbreak, which is necessary because these aren’t Bram Stoker style vampires—no cloaks or fangs or turning into bats.
In addition to the exploits of our heroes, the book follows the stories of several of the plane’s “survivors,” as well as a few ordinary citizens caught up in the drama. Almost all of these could have been cut. They distract from the main story and become repetitive and tedious through the middle of the book. Many are introduced with no follow up, and the others follow characters I didn’t care about, so they felt like an impediment to the main action. The exceptions are an exterminator (the patterns of rat infestations become hugely important to the fight against vampires), a recent ex-convict, and a storyline the authors follow to the most melancholy end possible, serving to highlight the tragic impact the vampires have on the human population.
Apart from the boilerplate writing and the improbable names, The Strain really has three major flaws. One is Eldritch Palmer. Palmer is an eccentric and sickly gazillionaire aiding Sardu in his quest to destroy New York, but his motivation is dissatisfyingly vague. The general outline is apparent from the start, but what exactly he hopes to gain from this is murky. He’s planning to make billions by shorting the futures market, but he’s not in it for the money. He wants to be rid of his sickly body and become immortal, but he seems to have a deal with Sardu ensuring that he won’t be turned. Another problem is the total eclipse of the sun that happens early in the book. A huge deal is made of it, especially of the fact that the technical name for it is occultation, but it doesn’t figure into the plot at all. It’s a buildup to nothing. Finally, since it’s only the first book in a trilogy, our heroes can’t be completely victorious, but their final setback is the result of a massive breach of the rules already established within the book. It feels like Hogan and Del Toro got cornered and took the most improbable escape route.
For all that, The Strain yields some real delights. A wonderfully creepy bit of imagery comes when a character learns about Sardu while eating boiled red beets, similar in appearance to human hearts. There’s a great moment when a character accidentally kills the vampire he’s fighting by exposing it to sunlight, and then immediately pushes another vampire into the light just so he can see it again. One character is rescued by a lame deus ex machina that awesomely set up the next book. I read the book in three nights: the first night I set the book down, turned off the light, and then hurriedly closed my window to keep my imagination at bay. The next two nights it felt like an accomplishment to keep my window open, even if I did dream of vampires. I’ll definitely read the next two books, if only to stop Sardu and his minions from haunting my dreams.
- Mily Kane