The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Published by Harper Collins, April 2010.
Review by Mark Yon
In this season of vampires, there’s a lot to choose from. From the Twilight series to Anita Blake, from Justin Cronin’s The Passage to…. well, this would be a pretty good alternative.
The tale hits the ground running with the arrival of Flight 753 in New York. All seems well, but on landing the plane suddenly goes dark. Covert observations show dead passengers sat in their seats with no signs of stress or trauma. There are seemingly no survivors, neither passengers or crew.
Inevitably, the truth is out. The plane had a vampire on board. Now it is loose in Manhattan. And the chances are that, with such a large new supply of victims, it will make more of the undead, potentially wiping out the USA in days. As if that wasn’t enough, the dead of Flight 753 are rising and returning home. And they’re hungry….
This is a fast paced blockbuster of a novel that starts fast and maintains the pace pretty much throughout. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Guillermo (director of Pan’s Labyrinth, Chronos and Hellboy I and II) brings a dynamic filmic quality to the book, though this is more than a bloated film script.
Relatively speaking, the hero of our tale is a typical damaged soul. Step forward, Eli Goodweather, head of the CDC, (the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), a team designed to deal with biological threats and who is determined to cull the spread of the disease. Eli and the other characters are pretty well developed compared with similar novels that tend to leave the characterisation on the superficial side in order to maintain pace. It’s not exactly Cronin depth, but it is a damn good page-turner.
That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have its clichés – the alcoholic divorcee trying to manage work and life as a single parent, the Van Helsing style character who is the ancient source of knowledge who realises what is happening but struggles to get others to believe what he is saying, and so on.
It’s also true that the tale’s not too original, although in counterpoint, after such a long time of being written about, most books struggle to bring something new to the vampire legend. This can be said here. However, although we’re not talking ground-breaking here, it is certainly an effective use of many of the old tropes. We are not talking classic traditional vampires here, nor are we talking emo-vamp. There are touches of I Am Legend here, more so than Twilight. Strangely perhaps, at times the actions of the CDC made me think of Crichton’s Andromeda Strain as well, not to mention the computer game Doom.
It’s a gloriously hyper, scary, exciting and entertaining read, as long as you don’t think about things too carefully. There’s some nicely done set pieces and some rather icky moments, as you might expect. Dog-lovers will have issues here, I think.
I whistled through it in a matter of days, finding it very hard to put down. And that after a fairly hefty glut of vampire novels recently. The ending is, to be honest, a bit of a let-down after the earlier set up, seeming merely in the end to move into place the events of the next book. Nevertheless, overall, this is going to scare the hell out of anyone who picks it up as a holiday read. Not particularly original but a damn good read.
Mark Yon, June 2010.