Book review: The Strain, By Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Strain
By Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
HarperCollins, €14

Published in The Sunday Business Post on July 12th, 2009, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Set in New York City, The Strain starts with a mysterious Boeing 777 arriving at JFK airport from Europe. The plane lands normally when suddenly the lights go out, the blinds go down and radio contact is lost. Worried that some sort of biological weapon has been deployed, the authorities call in Dr Eph Good weather of the Centre of Disease Control to seal off the plane.

When the door is opened, the crew and passengers are found sitting in their seats, dead and drained of blood, but – as there is no obvious sign of disease – the bodies are bagged up and sent to the morgue. With the authorities under extreme pressure to explain the deaths, the media descends on the airport, generating headlines all over the globe.

The reports are seen by millions of New Yorkers, including an elderly Jewish pawnbroker sitting in his shop in Spanish Harlem. Abraham Setrakian thinks he knows what’s caused the incident and quickly realises he has to convince the authorities that a supernatural plague is about to break out in Manhattan.

Setrakian is a retired Polish professor who spent World War II in a concentration camp, where the prisoners’ misery was compounded by nightly visits from an ancient vampire, killing with impunity under the noses of the prison guards. Now Setrakian is the only one with the necessary knowledge to help Dr Good weather battle the imminent outbreak and trace the source of the infection back to the master vampire which must have been onboard the plane at JFK.

It’s probably not surprising that even the bare-bones plot description seems more like a summary of a screenplay than a book, coming as it does from the pen of mystery writer Chuck Hogan and lauded film director Guillermo Del Toro – the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Interestingly, the entire book reads like a fleshed out movie script, and has clearly been written with as much thought given to the look and feel of the story as the motivation and development of the characters.

Throughout the narrative, Del Toro and Hogan mix magic and science without much concern for believability.

The bad guys in The Strain are sub-human vampires that start out as regular people until they’re infected with a virus that kills them and reanimates them, creating mindless bloodsucking automatons in the process. At the same time, the inception of the virus comes from a supernatural uber-vampire, Joseph Sardu, who appears to be almost entirely magical in origin.

Regardless of their origin, the vampires featured in The Strain owe a lot more to movies like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend than they do to Bram Stoker’s original vampire story – and unlike Twilight’s brooding Edward Cullen, they’re certainly not going to be the object of any teenage girl’s romantic fantasies.

It’s impossible to discount the influence of the many vampire and zombie movies to appear in recent years on Del Toro, and The Strain is an unashamedly derivative book. Del Toro recently gave an interview where he said that the idea was originally conceived as a TV project for the Fox network, but he decided to pull it from negotiations when he was asked if he could make it into a comedy. It’s not hard to see why.

The story is genuinely chilling, and features violence and gore to the extent that it’s hard to see how it could be made into prime time television.

At the same time, it strikes enough of a balance between creating clever psychological tension and breaking out the chainsaws to make it both readable and interesting. As the story plays itself out, the scene is set for the next two books that are already scheduled to appear to complete The Strain trilogy.

As horror stories go, this is a well written and absorbing read, but it’s unashamedly a genre work – so if you’re not into horror, you’ll probably find it pretty silly. On the other hand, as a poolside read, it’s an enjoyable romp with plenty to recommend it.

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