“The Strain” (the novel, not the brilliant FX adaptation) is Guillermo Del Toro’s and Chuck Hogan’s bloody re-imagining of the vampire story. What has for decades revolved around a beautiful aristocrat falling in love with a mortal (or mortality) turns into an global-sized epidemic in Del Toro’s and Hogan’s hands.
A plane lands in New York City and immediately ceases to function. This captures the attention of Eph and Nora, epidemiologists, who are called in to investigate what may have happened onboard. What greets them is a fuselage full of corpses, and it’s Eph’s job to find out how they died. As he and Nora gather clues, the evidence points to a new and virulent strain that increases the production of fatal tumors within human bodies. When Eph reaches the end of his knowledge, he meets Dr. Setrakian, a former professor and a current pawnshop owner.
Dr. Setrakian also moonlights as a vampire hunter.
With the aid of Fet, a New York City exterminator, the quartet discover an ancient plot to take over the world, an ambition reserved for only the greatest of mad men. Only, this schemer is no man. He is called the Master and his arrival is portended by a solar occultation, an eclipse that splashes darkness across the Empire City. One by one, the Master’s children awaken, casting the darkness further and farther.
Eph will do everything in his power to stop the Master and protect his son, Zach. However, as the sun fades, Eph realizes just how terrifying night can be.
Del Toro and Hogan bring many interesting and refreshing elements to the vampire story, although, the notion of doing something “refreshing” 0with vampires is becoming almost stale. Published in 2009, as “Twilight” reached true popularity, “The Strain” is definitely a new take. Through Eph and Nora, the reader learns about the physiology of the vampires: A blood worm infects its host, repurposes its organs, and generates tumors in order to control the body. They excrete as they feed and infection is instantaneous. Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen monstrous vampires (remember “30 Days of Night”?), but it’s definitely the most biologically accurate depiction in modern novels. What makes “The Strain” truly tantalizing is the slow buildup. The reader knows exactly where the story is going, but it takes almost half the novel to get there. But it’s almost gratifying to watch the characters put the clues together and for them to achieve understanding at the same time.
Characterization is on point throughout the book. Even side characters leave the reader with a sense of knowing them. From Dr. Setrakian’s personal nightmares of the Holocaust to Gus Elizalde’s gangster attitude, each character comes to life in the hands of Del Toro and Hogan, bringing different aspects to the revelation of a vampire apocalypse. The detail given to each person’s turning (into a vampire) is positively delectable and unlike anything that’s come before, a rare feat for this genre. Certain passages have the lushness of Anne Rice’s prose, though none of the romance, which is good or bad depending on your perspective.
It’s hard, though, to do anything truly original with vampires. Vampirism as a disease is explored in other novels like “Peeps.” That does not make “The Strain” derivative of that work (indeed, the styles are very different), but it does seem to mark a shift in the kind of vampires people want. Since 2009, there have been “V-Wars” and “The Passage.” Paranormal romance still thrives, but soon we may have an entire subgenre of vampire novels based around disease-carrying parasites.
A final caveat: “The Strain” is highly recommended. However, “The Strain Trilogy” is not. Both “The Fall” and “The Night Eternal” fail to reach the same level of quality and ingenuity as “The Strain.”
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