Monday, February 11, 2013

"The Strain" by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

When a Boeing 777 lands at JFK airport and then immediately cuts all contact, Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather, head of the Canary team for the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, is eventually contacted to see if there is any biological threat. He and his team board the plane to find that everybody - except for three passengers and a co-pilot - is dead. None of the dead passengers look as if they put up a fight.

Many weird occurences soon follow. A small slit is found on all the passenger's necks. Then the dead bodies go missing from the various morgues they have been taken to. The survivors start displaying strange behaviour also.

As it becomes increasingly obvious to Eph that some sort of vampiric plague is taking over the city, he eventually comes into contact with pawnbroker Abraham Setrakian, who seems to know a lot about these vampires and how they work. He has had encounters with their leader - The Master - before, dating back all the way to the Holocaust, which he survived. They band together to put a stop to the vampire plague.

I really wanted to like The Strain, since it signified a move back towards vampires being creatures of fear and evil, rather than brooding douchebags who sparkle in the sun. And coming from the mind of Guillermo Del Toro, the director responsible for many terrific fantasy and horror movies, there are a lot of good parts to the novel. In fact, the novel reads so well you can picture everything as it happens in your head - and I'm sure that was the intention. I suspect this will become a movie in the very near future.

However, my main issue here was - too many damn characters! Nearly every chapter introduces a new one. Often times they will pop up for that chapter only and never appear again. I understand that this is the first part in a trilogy, so they could possibly appear elsewhere down the line, but I kind of doubt it. The biggest problem with having all these characters is that some of the novel's most effectively eerie and suspenseful moments abound with characters we know little about, and subsequently we care little about what happens to them. Moments such as one guy caught in the back of a taxi as vampires try to get to him, or a woman trying to hide from a vampire trying to get at her through the mail slot in the front door, are technically excellent, but the suspense is severly lacking because they are incidental characters whose fates are not important - we never even find out what happens to them!

As a consequence, we then have main characters such as Nora Martinez, Eph's co-worker and occasional fling, who is ostensibly the main female character, yet we learn absolutely squat about her as a person, her history or anything. This is because every other chapter switches to a new character to provide a further glimpse of the apocalyptic vampire plague. I enjoy the action sequences and horror scenarios as much as anybody, but I would have been more involved in the proceedings if I had a better set of core characters to care about, with some of these excellent action and horror set-pieces actually happening to those characters I cared about, not basic extras.

I suspect there's a lot of padding here to ensure that this can serve as a trilogy. Take the 20-page chapter about the solar eclipse, for example. You could remove that chapter entirely without affecting much of the story. The solar eclipse has nothing to do with turning vampires. They pretty much operate like most vampires - sunlight kills them, beheading them kills them, etc. The novel goes to great lengths to provide medical/scientific explanations behind the plague, before suddenly just settling for typical vampire mythology later in the book. And is it just me, or did the vampires seem to act more like zombies?

I also think Del Toro borrowed somewhat from his movies. The vampires here reminded quite a bit of the vampires in Blade II. And the sequences set in the tunnels beneath New York City reminded me somewhat of the second half of Mimic. Oh yeah, I found the chapters featuring the late-introduced rat-exterminator Vasiliy Fet extremely dull. Thought I should throw that in there.

There's a lot to like about The Strain. It would make a terrific movie, if it excised all the unnecessary characters (which it would likely have to, anyway). But populating a horror novel with too many characters is a trait I have come across many times before, so it's a pity that situation had to significantly drag down an otherwise well-written and executed horror novel that brings some fear and excitement back to vampire stories.

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