THE STRAIN by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is straight-up
dark horror, a contemporary vampire novel in the vein of Stephen
King’s SALEM’S LOT.
del Toro is a filmmaker of dark vision and uncompromising
expression. His work on everything from the Academy Award-winning
Pan’s Labyrinth to the Hellboy movies is
legendary, and his next project, The Hobbit, is eagerly
anticipated. Hogan is the winner of the Hammett Award, recognition
of his gift for turning pages red with dark and violent prose. THE
STRAIN is a seamless collaboration, one that not only updates a
timeless legend but also transforms it.
Here’s the pitch: a vampire on an airliner gets loose in
Manhattan. Honestly, how can the plot of a book be any better?
There is more to it than that, of course. Specifically, a
transcontinental airline flight from Germany lands at Kennedy
International Airport and stops on the tarmac, lights off, shades
down, communication nil. When the plane is ultimately breached, and
very cautiously so, (almost) everyone onboard is found dead.
Even before you start reading THE STRAIN, you know it’s a
vampire novel, so you kind of expect that a catastrophe is coming.
However, it’s the way this opening scene plays out that makes
it a winner. Even though you’re aware of what’s going
on, almost nobody in the story has any idea, so it’s fun
watching how things are slowly but surely discovered. There are a
couple of important exceptions: Eph Goodweather, a CDC physician
who believes what he sees even when he tries to resist, and a
Holocaust survivor who has waited for decades to confront the evil
that he first encountered in a concentration camp in the early
1940s. And then there is the chronically ill billionaire who has
set everything in motion with the idea of gaining immortality.
For the most part, however, the authorities proceed cautiously.
By the time they move from the “let’s avoid
panic” stage to the “what the heck are we going to
do?” point, it’s almost too late. There are some
classic scenes that will have people talking for years. One
involves a pair of St. Bernard dogs that had me screaming
“Don’t!” as if everything that was occurring here
wasn’t just in a book. del Toro and Hogan tell us some
interesting facts about vampire waste that I could have lived my
entire life without knowing, and along similar lines you will find
out more about rats than you ever wanted to know. If you ride New
York subways, and look out the windows as you zip right along, you
indeed may be giving up that habit. And the phrase “Thank you
for shopping at Sears” will take on a whole new meaning. Even
a twist on Goodweather’s domestic travails, which
you’ll see coming at the beginning of the book, comes off
quite well with a touch of dark humor.
THE STRAIN is the first volume in a projected trilogy; the
second and third installments are scheduled for 2010 and 2011,
which seems like an awfully long time. But if the forthcoming books
are half as good as this one, then the wait will be worth it. There
is a great deal yet to happen, and as is hinted at, the vampire who
is causing all of the commotion is making a power grab, which makes
some of his brethren unhappy. You and me? We’re in the way.
We better hide.
The first and last 100 pages or so are as good as it gets. What
happens in between will keep you in a state of high anxiety
approaching panic. THE STRAIN will have you sleeping with a night
light on for the rest of your life.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011