My Book Shelf: ‘The Strain’ Del Toro returns to vampires

07.05.09 8 years ago

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I remember when Guillermo Del Toro signed a deal with Fox to develop a TV series.  I thought at the time it was a strange fit, and I couldn’t imagine Fox having the nerve to actually air anything that came out of the fertile and fevered mind of Guillermo.  They’re so bad about supporting genre shows that they put on that I couldn’t imagine that partnership proving to be a durable one.

Sure enough, Del Toro pitched them a series about a plague that turns out to be an attempt by vampires to take over the world, and when Fox passed on it, Guillermo decided instead to develop the story as a series of three novels, working with co-writer Chuck Hogan.  The result has already made a huge impact on the bestseller lists, and I’m willing to bet that the entire trilogy will end up optioned for film at some point.  The question is how does this work as a book, by itself, removed from the hype of Guillermo’s involvement and the promise of a trilogy?

Before picking up The Strain, I was unfamiliar with the work of Chuck Hogan.  He’s an award-winning crime novelist, and his book Prince Of Thieves is going to be adaptated into a film by Ben Affleck as his follow-up to “Gone Baby Gone,” so I’m guessing there’s some substance to his work.  Now that I’ve read The Strain, though, I think I have a pretty good handle on Hogan’s voice as a writer, because no matter what I thought of it as a book, it doesn’t read like it came out of Guillermo Del Toro.

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There are ideas in it that are certainly very much like the signatures to Del Toro’s work, but the writing is far more indicitive of what I’d call “modern American beach read” than it is of Guillermo’s typical voice on the page.  I’ve read many of Del Toro’s scripts, and he comes at language with the same sort of deranged joy that he comes at the ideas in his films.  Perhaps that’s partly because he speaks more than one language, and English wasn’t first.  Whatever the case, it’s probably a good thing that The Strain is more of a hybrid between the free-for-all joy of Guillermo’s bloodletting and the cool, slick, professional prose that seems to mark Hogan’s work.  That’s no slam on Hogan, either.  I think anyone who wants to publish a major commercial novel in the US these days needs to pretty much fit into a very narrow mold, and this book feels like a match between the short, propulsive chapter structure of a Michael Crichton novel and the grotesque-but-not-overdone horror of Stephen King.  It’s a quick ready, breezy and always interesting, and if I have one major complaint, it’s that this is blatantly the set-up to a trilogy, and as a stand-alone story, it’s somewhat dissatisfying.  I think Guillermo was a major part of the outlining and the character descriptions and setting up the rules of the world and the aesthetic, and then Hogan did a lot of the heavy lifting.  Makes sense.

After a brief prologue that sets up this book’s Van Helsing figure, a concentration camp survivor named Abraham Setrakian, the book kicks off with a tantalizing mystery.  A flight from Berlin to New York lands at JFK, and in the moments between touchdown and taxiing to the terminal, something happens that shuts the entire plane down completely, leaving it dark and silent on one of the runways.  Very quickly, it becomes evident that something strange and terrible has happened, as no one can get any radio response from the plane, and there are no signs of life when people approach the outside.

Dr. Eph Goodweather is a specialist with the CDC who is called in to try and figure out if some sort of viral agent was used to kill everyone onboard the plane, and his involvement quickly embroils him in a world he had no idea even existed.  Eventually, Goodweather and his cohorts team up with Setrakian, and the truth is revealed… it may look like a plague has rolled into New York, but in reality, the city has become ground zero for a whole new type of vampire invasion.  Guillermo’s redesigned the biology and the pathology of the vampire, and the result almost plays like a prequel to “I Am Legend,” in which a total solar eclipse is the starting gun on the end of mankind on the planet.  Eph is the eyes and ears for the audience, and his journey to understand exactly what threat he’s up against is the main thrust of the narrative this time out.  The entire book builds up to the revelation of The Master and a confrontation with him, but there’s a feeling that this is simply the first skirmish in a much larger world.  There’s also a particularly nasty plot twist in the last three pages involving Eph, his ex-wife, and his son that was the welcome gut-punch that the rest of the climax didn’t quite deliver.

I like the world.  I like the vampires.  I like the notion of treating these monsters like you would treat a virus.  And just because I don’t particularly think the book reads like Del Toro, that’s not to say it’s a bad read at all.  If anything, this has interested me enough that I’ll pick up Prince Of Thieves now and see what Hogan has to offer on his own.  I look forward to The Fall in 2010 and The Night Eternal in 2011, and I’m sure this will be remembered as a fascinating diversion in the film career that Del Toro’s building, a great way for him to share one of his ideas that might otherwise have vanished into development hell.

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