The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
I hate zombies. Mostly because I am irrationally afraid of them. The zombie apocalypse is a common feature in my nightmares- so common, in fact, it barely interrupted my dream grocery shopping last time it turned up. (“There are zombies in the parking lot! There’s not a lot… I could make it to my car. Could I? I totally could…”) I’m slowly getting over it, with the judicious application of Left 4 Dead 2 and logic. The Strain offered a halfway point to help me along my way to zombie acceptance- it’s a vampire apocalypse! Vampires barely phased me even before the invasion of the laughable sparklepires. This, I thought, I could deal with.
The Strain follows Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, who heads the Canary Project- a government funded project to help deal with epidemics and plagues. When a plane lands at JFK with only four survivors and the rest apparently drained of blood, Goodweather is baffled. Abraham Setrakian, a pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem, is not. Having spent his life searching for a particularly insidious master vampire, he believes that his old enemy has come to the United States, bringing with him vampirism, the ultimate virus. It’s only a matter of time before New York becomes overrun with vampires.
The Strain has all the best hallmarks of a thriller- a quick and engaging pace, clear and direct writing, and the uncanny ability to make me keep reading it even when I should be doing something else. There’s no standout writing moments, but there are a few cringe-worthy descriptions- a dead child dressed in white is described as “bride-like”, which just grossed me out. The pace is unrelentingly steady, and the novel is structured cinematically. Scenes tend towards the short and vivid. While Del Toro definitely doesn’t shy away from the gore, some of the creepiest scenes simply cut away as humans are cornered by shambling, dead-eyed vampires.
Del Toro’s vampires resemble traditional vampires less than they resemble Smokers from Left 4 Dead, which are zombies with frog-like tongues. Del Toro’s vampires have “stingers” under their tongues, used to sting and paralyze their victims. Their zombie similarities are explained away by the fact that the turned New Yorkers are all newborn vampires: mindless, stupid, and hungry. Still, it’s a little weird to hear the characters insist on their vampirism when they resemble popular zombies so much. Dr. Goodweather’s son, Zack, does speak of them as if they’re zombies, but, then, he’s eleven. Del Toro tries to offer some logic for his vampires, explaining vampirism as a virus that animates a dead body. However, they’re still telepathic and inexplicably vulnerable to sunlight. The best thing about Del Toro’s vampires, however, is the mysterious vampiric hierarchy. Mature vampires barely consider humans as anything other than prey, and the idea of a rogue master vampire spreading vampirism to pathetic humans enrages the other master vampires in North America. This is explored only briefly, but it’s quite tantalizing for the sequels. (Did I mention it’s a trilogy?)
There are only two good characters in The Strain; Setrakian and Vasiliy Fet. Setrakian is an old man animated by pure vengeance. A Holocaust survivor who encountered a master vampire while interned at a concentration camp, Setrakian has made it his life’s work to hunt and eradicate vampires. Being a pawn broker is a cover for being a collector of anti-vampire weaponry. He even owns the beating heart of a vampire, revealed in one of the novel’s creepiest scenes. Fet, introduced about halfway through, is a vermin exterminator who joins up with the main characters once he realizes that vermin are fleeing the city and that vampires, especially newborn vampires, function mostly like vermin themselves. I found Fet to be a very clever character.
The rest, including our supposed protagonist, Dr. Goodweather, are not as original or well developed. Ephraim, who goes by the very silly nickname “Eph”, feels more like a stereotype than a character- a man married to his job, divorced from his wife, and whose life revolves around his child and his work. I think some of this comes from the cast of dozens, as Del Toro and Hogan explore the effects of vampirism on the general public. These characters are sketched quickly and are, to be honest, a little stereotypical, but it’s not noticeable and sometimes even effective in the shorter passages. It becomes fairly obvious the more time we spend with a character, though. Gabriel Bolivar, a rock star turned vampire, borders on parody. One of the survivors is even an ice queen of a lawyer, and her story includes a very clunky scene where she, believing she’s pacifying her children, instead terrifies them. Setrakian and Fet are the only bright spots in the cast.
Del Toro and Hogan’s inaccuracies and minor plot holes occasionally pull you out of the story. I can understand not predicting the closing of The Little Mermaid musical. But to pointedly describe an older character as always wearing Converse sneakers and then later talk about her foot problems? Why on earth would someone who needs foot support be wearing Converse? These little stumbles are never very important, but they do pull you out of the story. The novel also walks a fine line between a CSI inspired vampire apocalypse and pure cheese on occasion- Ephraim’s sudden ability to use a sword is never commented on or even explained, and Setrakian is awfully spry for his age.
There’s also the matter of the gore. While the gore is essentially what you would expect from a zombie film of any stripe, there’s a very specific problem when a fighter encounters someone he disliked in his former life. Ephraim, especially, encounters his ex-wife’s boyfriend, and the novel specifically notes him using his negative feelings towards him to help him finish the vampire off. It’s a complicated issue that should be addressed- but never is. There’s also the very cynical nature of this world in general. While I wouldn’t expect anyone to be exactly happy go lucky in this situation, the concept of God is dismissed by at least three different characters.
Bottom line: A creepily good and methodically steady vampire apocalypse with a subpar cast, The Strain can feel a little cheesy, but you’re going to be hooked regardless.
I rented this book from the public library.