The Strain, Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

Morrow, 2009, 401 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-155823-8

Any review of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain can start from an embarrassing number of attention-grabbing hooks: The celebrity stunt-writing aspect; the resurgence of the evil-vampire breed; the post-9/11 New York setting; the first-book-in-a-trilogy angle.  They all compete for attention, obscuring the fact that the book reads like an average middle-of-the-road horror novel with techno-thriller overtones.

It would be easy to focus exclusively on Guillermo del Toro, who’s one of the finest genre horror director currently working.  Few others combine his rich fantastical imagination, his writing abilities and his strong visual abilities.  But his obvious influence on The Strain seems limited to two things.  First: how the vampires have a striking similarity to the ones in del Toro’s own Blade 2.  Second, how his name alone seems to have added 5$ to the book’s cover price for a shoddily-made hardcover.  Otherwise, one would assume that the book has been written in more or less the same way as other celebrity collaborations: Ideas and concepts from the celebrity, actual writing from the below-the-line writer.

The resurgence of the evil vampire as an antagonist is only noteworthy thanks to a blip in popular culture that, from Lestat de Lioncourt to Edward Cullen while passing through a good chunk of the paranormal romance genre, has momentarily de-fanged the vampire in quasi-genre literature.  One notes, however, that most of this vampiric denaturation has occurred at the borders of the genre, and not too often within horror itself: The “return of the evil vampire” was never needed for core horror fans.  Still, del Toro and Hogan make no secret of what they’re trying to do in this novel: As vampires land in Manhattan, it’s time for a zombie epidemic scenario featuring blood-suckers.

The post-9/11 setting offers a few more interesting critical opportunities, especially considered within the book’s techno-thriller affections.  From the Dracula-inspired opening sequence in which a Boeing 777 lies immobile on the JFK tarmac with only four survivors left inside, The Strain co-opts some of the techno-thriller tricks to heighten its depiction of an initial vampire outbreak.  We get short chapters alternating between many narrative viewpoints.  We get tons of historical and technical details weaved into the fabric of the story.  We even get historical flashbacks explaining back-story, familiar characters, one-off vignettes in which the viewpoint character ends up dying horribly and use of landmark locations in action set-pieces.  (Or, as it happens, the use of former landmark locations in action set-pieces.)

It may be familiar, but it works well: The opening sequence is creepy in part because it explains so patiently how official authorities would react to a supernatural mystery.  The picture that del Toro and Hogan end up creating of modern New York feels convincing, and does much to distinguish this novel from others in the same pack.  The use of thriller plot mechanics also allows the story to tackle a bigger canvas than other horror novels, which is practically a necessity in this avowed first volume of a trilogy that seems headed for global apocalypse.

This potential for scope and breath, however, remains the most distinctive element of a novel that remains overly familiar in its other aspects.  If the vampire/zombie hybrids feel as if they stepped out of Blade 2, the human characters also seem to come out of Central Casting: Give me an overworked divorced scientist, a wizened holocaust survivor and a level-headed blue-collar worker! The entire narrative thrust of the novel is just as ordinary, down to the convenient “kill the head of the vampires and the rest will die” plot device.  The inevitable ending is also predictable from the moment we understand that this is the first volume of a trilogy.

The good news are that the first volume does set up a promising follow-up, and that the novel is solid enough to please horror fans looking for an uncompromisingly gory take on the vampire genre.  The Strain is forthright enough to announce that the two other volumes in the trilogy, The Fall and The Night Eternal, will be forthcoming in June 2010 and 2011.  Hopes are that they will take the story in more original territory.

[October 2010: The Fall is a decent follow-up in that it continues the story is pretty much the same way, using pretty much the same characters and monsters.  While the apocalyptic atmosphere is stronger, the techno-thriller detailing isn’t as strong.  Traditional narrativus interruptus is typical for a second-volume-in-a-trilogy.  Recommended for fans of the first book, although it won’t make new converts to the series.]

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