The paperback edition of The Strain is currently being stacked onto bookshelves as I type this sentence – its official release is tomorrow but I just came from a bookstore which is already selling it. I thought this would be a great time to reprint this review, which I originally posted as part of a month-long stream of horror-related articles for Halloween. The book will surely be just as fun a summer read as it was in fall, so if you’re looking for a great read for any upcoming vacations, here’s your Huckleberry.
I’m very happy to say that I raced through The Strain, the first in a planned epic trilogy from film director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy 2, Pan’s Labyrinth) and novelist Chuck Hogan. I’m very familiar with the work of Mr. Del Toro, though far less so with that of Mr. Hogan, but the collaboration between the two has clearly yielded some storytelling magic.
If you take my advice and give this book a prompt reading, please take a little extra advice and don’t read the hardcover’s dust jacket (or the paperback’s rear end) too closely. The publisher’s summary goes a bit too far in overselling what will eventually happen in the story. What you need to know of the plot going in is this:
An passenger airline flight from Germany lands on the runway at JFK and immediately goes dark. This has something to do with an outbreak of vampires the likes of which New York City has never seen. The city’s best hope lies with two men: a contagious disease specialist whose personal life is falling apart, and a 90-something Holocaust survivor and pawn shop owner.
That’s the story. Now here comes the praise. The Strain accomplishes some very difficult writerly feats quite effectively:
It offers a surprisingly original take on vampires, by coming at it from a science-based perspective (or close enough, anyway). I liked how the authors tried to stick to some semblance of reality when explaining, expanding, or discounting the standard tropes of vampire myth. It certainly helps that they made their protagonist a doctor, so that the exposition scenes feel natural rather than forced. The initial appearances in the book of the “Master” vampire seems to owe something to the work of the great horror writer F. Paul Wilson (specifically, The Keep),but The Strain eventually differentiates itself enough to be considered something new. Honestly, the story’s plague falls in line somewhere between vampires and zombies, rather than keeping strictly to classical characteristics of vampirism – but it’s good, so who cares about boundaries.
The Strain is also admirable for its convincing depiction of New York, from the bureaucrats at the top to the working class heroes at ground level. It manages the narrative feat of establishing a bunch of twenty-something story threads, and slowly, subtly, pulling them all together by story’s end. It is the rare modern horror novel that invokes the very real horrors of World War II AND September 11th without feeling exploitative, derivative, or stupid. (Too much crappy horror is guilty of that.) Best of all, The Strain conjures and builds an atmosphere of menace within the reader’s gut long before the vampires ever appear, and it does so even when you already know from the first page that eventually they will arrive. That’s no small achievement, especially to a jaded reader like myself who’s near-impossible to spook.
The Strain is available in better bookstores now. It may be one of the worst novels you could EVER read on an airplane, but it’s surely one of the best horror novels of the year.