Tired of vampires yet? If you said yes, then you might not be too interested in The Strain, the first installment of what seems like just another vampire trilogy. Don’t write it off too quickly, though: these vampires don’t sparkle. Nor do they fall in love with people — they suck them dry and spread the contagion. They also seem to poop a lot, which is an interesting innovation. (How else can a vampire make room for more blood?)
The Strain is the brainchild of director Guillermo Del Toro, who, along with co-author Chuck Hogan, has written a novel that feels more like a movie. The result of their combined efforts is a nail-biting page-turner that updates the traditional vampire story. Del Toro and Hogan blend the supernatural and the scientific to create a plausible, frightening scenario in which a violent plague spreads beyond our control.
The novel hooks the reader from the opening pages and maintains an unrelenting pace until the very end. A sense of dread is apparent from the beginning, even in the absence of violence or gore. When a Boeing 777 lands at JFK, everything seems normal - until the plane stops dead at the end of the runway. No one exits. All lights are out and every shade is drawn. Time passes, and when no communication comes from anyone on board, it becomes evident that something is seriously wrong. Suspecting biological terrorism, officials call in the CDC.
Dr. Ephraim Goodweather and biochemist Nora Martinez arrive to find a plane full of dead people. The mystery deepens when they discover that whatever has claimed the lives of these people has left behind no apparent trauma. From there, events seem to unwind slowly as evidence is gathered, but the reader doesn’t have time to grow bored. The action shifts from incident to incident, the intensity building with every step, and Del Toro’s cinematic chops are evident in these quickly shifting scenes.
It isn’t long before the infection spreads beyond the CDC’s ability to contain it, and consequently the action moves to locations commonly associated with safety (hospitals, police stations, kitchens, and bedrooms), increasing the reader’s sense of doom. Goodweather adapts to the nature of the plague that confronts him just as the vampires themselves adapt and evolve, eventually sprouting a stinger-like apparatus that enables them to better feed. These vampires are not cute and cuddly; they are disgusting and alien, retaining little of their former humanity. Instead of speaking, they make “animal-like groans and glottal clicks…[their] attempts at speech blocked by the vile appendages grown beneath their tongues.”
The greatest horror, however, is yet to be unleashed, for while this virus can be understood by science, it cannot be defeated by it. Goodweather, now armed and dangerous, must further confront the supernatural when he finally understands the source of this present catastrophe. Without giving anything away, I’ll say only that this addition had its shortcomings. Still, it will be interesting to see how the second and third installments further develop this aspect of the story.
Minor details aside, there isn’t much to quibble over here. You don’t have to be a vampire junkie to enjoy The Strain, which is at its core just a good story with complex characters and a chilling premise. The writing is crisp and effective; the plot is taut and suspenseful. Of course, vampire enthusiasts will especially enjoy this fun, frightening addition to vampire lore — just don’t expect lingering glances and angsty sighs. In Del Toro’s world, there will be blood. And poop. Lots and lots of poop.
Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.