Review of The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
In New York’s JFK airport a new Boeing 777 lands only to be discovered with its passengers and crew all dead. As CDC Dr. Ephraim Goodweather begins his investigation the bodies of the victims disappear leaving him with mysteries as to the empty aircraft, white blood splatters, and an enormous coffin that inexplicably disappears from the quarantine area. While the victims’ families cope with the stunning loss they begin being visited by their deceased love ones who have returned with a terrible thirst.
Only one person in the city who understands what is happening is Abraham Setrakian, a pawn shop owner and Holocaust survivor who names the menace what it is: vampires. As Ephraim and other rational people struggle to understand this myth come to life, the vampires set about terrorizing the city by night, turning whole neighborhoods into havens for the undead with the authorities not comprehending the situation until it is too late.
The Strain is a good novel for those who like their vampire stories full of terror and gore. The undead in this novel have more in common with the fearsome and relentless monsters of folklore, the old horror film Nosferatu, and Stephen King. Del Toro, too, is no stranger to using vampires in his work as he directed Blade 2. As in that movie, the vampires here are monstrous and inhuman with hardly a hint of the romance or sensuality that is part of other vampire stories. Also, a significant amount of time is spent explaining vampire anatomy and progression of the vector that transmits the condition. The book becomes a strange fusion of horror and medical novels which makes the undead creatures seem more plausible but does nothing to diminish their frightening presence.
The only real complaint is the proliferation of minor characters in the first quarter of the novel that slow the pace without adding much to the tension. It is not until the reader is introduced to major characters like Ephraim that a consistent perspective is established and gives someone for the reader to care about. As the novel progresses, though, the speed of events lends a real urgency to the story as the spread of vampirism tears through communities and destroys them literally overnight. What is worse is that the innocents are drained and infected by the same people they’ve lived with and loved for years.
The real terror of the novel is how—like all good horror—it uses its monsters not only to create suspense and fear in the reader but also to remind them of similar dread in their own lives. The rapid and destructive spread of vampirism can stand in as a metaphor to how people react to the spread of other fast and lethal diseases like SARS or Swine and Bird Flu and the systemic panic they cause. The vampires will disappear when the book closes; West Nile and AIDS are here to stay, and they cannot be stopped with silver and UV lamps.