When I first read that Guillermo Del Toro had teamed up with author Chuck Hogan to pen what was to be the first in a trilogy of books dealing with vampires I took note. The main reason being that Del Toro’s vision in the medium of films is persistently captivating; I’ve loved his moodily dark yet visually enchanting themes in movies from The Devil’s Backbone through to Hellboy and its sequel.
I also recall his debut film, Cronos, being one of my favourites of the 90′s, itself dealing in a most unique way with vampire lore. I am glad to say that I’ve not been disappointed with his influence in The Strain.
The novel opens with a grandmother telling her grandson of a giant, corrupted and turned evil, who roams the night looking for victims from which he should feed. He is Sardu, his prey the local village folk, and his story steeped in the local lore. It’s an appropriate rendition to look to the past, given the nods made throughout this book toward the original vampire tale extraordinaire, Dracula, which set the ball in motion over a century ago into creating a literary theme so prevalent today.
Forward then to decades later and modern day New York, specifically JFK International Airport. Here Flight 753, a Boeing 777 chock full of passengers, has just landed. But something is not right and the plane is effectively dead just moments after having touched down, no lights or signs of life from within the cabin. The authorities investigate and soon the Centre for Disease Control discover what is an almost impossible set of conditions on the plane and its entirely expired passenger manifest. Then however a small handful of survivors is discovered, but initial frustration turns to despair as a greater evil machination forces its hand and these survivors begin to undergo a change.
Soon those relieved to be alive wish they were not, as the dead begin to rise. But this isn’t a zombie novel by any means. Nor is it a traditional vampire tale, though it nods heavily in that direction. It definitely brings a fresh perspective to the apocalyptic infestation type end of civilisation horror-themed literature. Its main characters are interesting and convincing, their goals tough and un-envious and you’re rooting for them throughout. From Eph the CDC doctor dedicated to his job and son, to the antiquated pawnbroker but equally dedicated Van Helsing- type of Setrakian (he even shares a first name with the eponymous doctor from Dracula).
In a way writing apocalyptic-leaning novels must be fun in that the authors basically play on the fears that linger at the edge of society and ramp them up. Take that idea of how we’re all just three square meals away from anarchy, add ‘factor x’ evil thing, and crank it up a few thousand volts. With the concepts executed in The Strain there is an added villain behind the scenes (two, actually). One a traditional Machiavellian that the humans amongst us can recognise and scorn, and the other a big bad mysterious and scary malevolence, providing vent for the reader’s all too psychological primeval angst to worry over. And it is a convincing evil thing – nothing at all romantic about it. This aspect of villainy adds to the apocalyptic potential (as it is just potential in this first book) and intrigue and plays well alongside the novel’s more typical horror aspects.
All in all, this was a very good read indeed, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a good action horror novel with intelligent thought, research and writing.