Sunday, June 21, 2009

Book Review: "The Strain" by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

When I first heard about The Strain, the first book in a new trilogy by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, I was very excited to read this book. I have become a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro thanks to Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth. I had never read a book written by someone known for making movies so I was very interested to see if the imagery I had grown to love on screen would translate into book form. "The Strain" begins as a Boeing 777 lands at JFK airport and immediately shuts down, losing all communication with the control tower. When the first responders arrive on the scene they find the plane completely dark with all the shades down and the emergency exits shut too tight to open. Just as the rescuers get ready to cut into the plane, they notice one of the exits has just opened... Once the plane is boarded it's discovered that all but four passengers on the plane are dead under very mysterious circumstances. Dr. Ephraim (Eph) Goodweather is called in as a member of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to investigate the deaths. It soon becomes clear that the bodies on the plane are like nothing Eph has ever seen before and in the course of his investigation he finds an unlikely source of information in an elderly pawnbroker who warns Eph that the victims on the plane are the prey of the Master; a vampire the old man, Abraham Setrakian, has been hunting for most of his life. Setrakian also tells Eph that the dead will rise and spread a strain of vampirism that will threaten the existence of the entire human race. "The Strain" is a good, old-fashioned horror novel. It doesn't try to turn vampires into some kind of empathetic pseudo monster. But an odd thing happened when Del Toro created his vampires-- he turned them into zombies. I'll try to explain without too many spoilers. In my mind vampires are monsters, but self-aware. The vampires in "The Strain" are very zombie-like in their need to feed. They have a limited awareness in that they will return to their homes to feed off of the people they loved in life. That part of the narrative definitely adds to the horror of the story and sets up some of the most suspenseful scenes. But there's no personality in these vampires-- thus far. The book does say that in the initial stages the feeing urge takes over everything so perhaps that means we will see more independent thought come through in the later books in the series. But I still maintain the monsters in this book have more in common with zombies than vampires. In addition to the mindless hunger, the vampires from Del Toro's book pass on the virus of vampirism very easily. It's not like the vampire myths I'm familiar with in which the blood of the victim is drained and replaced with vampire blood. All it takes in this case is a bite. So "The Strain" ends up feeling very much like a combination of "Resident Evil" and "Blade." The book is exceptionally well written, so any shortcomings I have noted may be the result of the expectations I had beforehand. I had high hopes for "The Strain." I was looking for unusual imagery, like I had seen in "Pan's Labyrinth," so the straight-forward nature of the story seemed pedestrian in the face of that. But if this book had been written by anyone else, I would definitely have fewer complaints. The story is well plotted, though it does have a slow build-up. The characters are intriguing-- especially that of Abraham Setrakian, and I am interested to see where the story goes from here. Yet... My overall impression is that "The Strain" is fairly derivative of some of Del Toro's other work. My first thought was that the vampires borrowed heavily from "Blade II" --and I didn't know until I looked up Del Toro's biography that he had directed that film. He also flashes back to a storyline that occurs in Nazi Germany; and while it adds a very poignant and interesting history to Setrakian's character, it's also reminiscent of the war-time backdrops he uses in "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth." Basically, I read this book with far too many expectations. Don't get me wrong. "The Strain" is a good book. It's suspenseful, interesting, fast-paced and compelling. But it is not particularly imaginative for a man of Del Toro's range. I will be in the minority in offering criticisms of this book as it's been very well received so I would recommend going to the Amazon page to read some other reviews as well as the first chapter excerpt available on the page. It's a good horror story and one that may appeal to Del Toro fans-- my preconceived notions notwithstanding.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad to hear it doesn't suck, and that the vamps are nasty.

Sullivan McPig said...

Zombies are always ok, so I don't mind the vampires acting like zombies.
And he has this thing of getting creatures confused. I mean: his trolls in Hellboy II looked more like elfs to me.
Have you seen 'The Devils Backbone'? I still think that's his best movie. No fancy puppets or costumes, just a really good ghost story.

SQT said...


I totally forgot about "The Devil's Backbone." I think I have it, but forgot about it. I will definitely have to watch that. Thanks for the reminder.

kingofthenerds said...

Good comment re: the vampires and I definitely see your point. I do think that some of the more unique elements about the vampires were sort of glossed over in favor of a quicker pace. There were things hinted at and things stated outright that were never completely explained in the text. They also hint a greater depth to vampire society (partially explained by Abraham) and glimpsed briefly when we last see that gang member. Hopefully the middle act will slow things down a bit a delve a bit deeper into lore Hogan and del Toro are crafting here.

SQT said...


You may be right-- this could simply be the set up for the next book. I would love it if the vampires take on a more self-aware attitude and have motives that go beyond the need to feed. We'll see..