The first book in a planned trilogy “The Strain” marks the literary debut of noted film director Guillermo Del Toro, here co-authoring with noted thriller writer Chuck Hogan. Chronicling the early stages of a nasty vampire virus as it begins to overpower the world, the story takes place almost solely in New York (and really what better place for a virus to start?). Its early chapters serve as a cold throat grabber that demands you pay attention to the impending sense of doom. A plane has landed at JFK that went entirely dead very suddenly. Almost everybody on board has been murdered and those that haven’t will become the first vampires to stalk through the streets of NY seeking fresh blood.

These are eternally hungry, downright angry vampires who are lucky enough to be dumped into one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. From this premise Del Toro and Hogan are able to craft a well-detailed, somewhat original tale that does lean heavily on genre norms, but is nimble enough to avoid any debilitating pitfalls. Our protagonist is Eph Goodweather, head of the rapid response team for the CDC, and he is truly a hero of our times; overworked, stretched too thin and wholly consumed by his job.

Because of this his personal life suffers with his soon to be ex-wife dating a Sears manager (yick) and wiping the floor with him in their custody battle over their precocious son. His pain and frustration with this modern world of ours is laid out brilliantly in small moments (a continuously ringing phone) that add depth and realism to the story. He will eventually be joined on his vampire-hunting quest by an obligatory misfit team. There is Nora (his current booty call), Fet (some rat exterminator), and most importantly Abraham Setrakian (the old wise man who provides all the book mythology by expounding knowledge to his new found friends).

 

The problem I have with Del Toro branching out is that right now he is one of the top directors in the world. But after this novel really the best he could hope for is to be called the 2nd coming of John Saul. It’s not as though I’m saying that he shouldn’t try new things, I only wonder if this venture was the best use of his energies. And in reality this is a good book, just I think it would have been better served as a movie where it would have been enhanced by Del Toro’s visual artistry and not held back by his clunky sense of scene setting.

Also, after a genuinely disturbing opening, the book falls into familiar formula. We have a scene where our heroes are hot on the trail of the vampires and then we cut to a scene of the vampires devouring another victim. This repeats over and over again throughout the four-hundred-odd pages. More time was needed building the mythology and less time was needed piling on the body count. On the plus side I was very into the way that the story played off of our current headlines. It all takes place in a universe where Youtube can be used as a weapon and the crater left behind by the World Trade Center can be used as a hiding place.

It also makes refreshingly real use of its New York setting. Not content to just mention the tourist stops in passing, "The Strain" gets inside of the New York that I know and love. Woodside and Rego Park play key roles, people watch the disaster unfold live on NY1 and we get a chance to explore the old, abandoned City Hall subway station. It’s all very cool and more than enough to warrant the recommending this book. And who knows, maybe one day, after Del Toro has won a few Oscars for those Hobbit movies he’s working on, he will circle back and give this story the big screen treatment it deserves. In the meantime I anxiously await the next two installments as the only resolution this one offered was that the worst was yet to come. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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