Review: The Strain by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

I have to be honest – I initially picked up The Strain because of Guillermo del Toro’s name plastered across the front – “From the Creator of the Oscar-Winning Pan’s Labyrinth!” I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, and in fact I loved Pan’s Labyrinth as well as his more recent Hellboy 2. He brings a surreal vision, a dark fairy tale-like quality to his projects that I admire. From a writer’s perspective, however, I have to say I feel for Chuck Hogan, overshadowed as he most certainly is by his co-author’s celebrity. In any case, I’m a long-time fan of vampire fiction and mythology as well, so I figured it was worth a read.

The book is the first in a trilogy about an old world vampire who hitches a ride aboard a passenger jet from Germany to JFK in order to make lots of baby vampires and take over the world. Vampirism itself is treated as a disease (hence the title), and many of the old tropes about garlic and crosses are abandoned. On the opposing side, trying to save humanity, are CDC specialist Ephraim Goodweather, his assistant Nora, and, presumably in a nod to Stoker, Abraham Setrakian, an aged vampire hunter who survived the Treblinka death camp in World War II and has spent his life studying and preparing for this conflict.

I really liked the fact that this is truly a horror story – no handsome, moody, teenaged vampires here. I was actually really creeped out reading this thing in the middle of the night. These vampires are evil, and they’re scary, and they’re everywhere, hiding in suburban basements and subway tunnels, just waiting to jump out of the darkness and make a snack of anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. The authors are spot-on when it comes to keeping the action level just right and sustaining the fear factor, building to the ultimate showdown with the master vampire himself. It reads like a good fright-fest movie, and I say that as a compliment.

This, however, is the flip-side of what I didn’t like about the book. It was originally pitched as a script for a television series to Fox, and that’s exactly what it reads like. As I read it I couldn’t help but feel like I was reading a movie novelization. The characters, their dialogue, the settings, everything feels a bit contrived, as if I were reading the proposal for a movie. In the end, though, the good storytelling kept me interested, and that, on the most fundamental level, is what makes or breaks a book.
The Strain will never be considered among the canon of great American literature. It is what it is – a rollercoaster ride, a well-written horror movie, a summer fling. It’s fun to let go now and then, and give yourself over to an experience without having to think much. Bottom line – it’s a page-turner, and I liked it. Three stars.

11 June 2009


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