The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Strain cvr

Guillermo del Toro is the draw here, and I’m not sure I would have picked this up if it just had Chuck Hogan’s name on the cover.  Actually, my copy doesn’t have Chuck Hogan’s name on the cover at all.  There is a big sticker over it (in true cinematic fashion del Toro’s is above the title, while Hogan’s is below, to indicate their relative importance) which says: ‘Book one of the unnerving trilogy from the director of Pan’s Labyrinth.  What happens next?  Try the sequel for free at…’.  As Hogan one suspects did most of the actual writing, it seems somewhat unfair of the publisher to obscure his name in order to boost del Toro’s.  Attribution aside, was I unnerved?  Hardly.  Once it gets going after a slow start it’s a pacy yarn, with some suitably gory moments, but it doesn’t have much depth.

The Demeter runs aground and Dracula makes landfall in Whitby…  Sorry, a Boeing 777 from Germany arrives in New York City and immediately shuts down, with no sign of life.  When opened it appears to be full of corpses, plus a strange coffin-like box not on the manifest which mysteriously disappears.  The corpses aren’t really ‘dead’ of course, but transforming as a result of their encounter with a master vampire, logically called The Master.  From this one spot the disease brought into the United States will radiate exponentially to infect the city.  It is only a matter of time before the world succumbs to the horror.

Forget Twilight romance, there is nothing attractive about these vampires.  The infection takes the form of parasitic worms that possess the organs of the body and remake them for their benefit, destroying the personality and rendering the victim effectively one large virus of great strength, complete with (surely a del Toro touch) a long stinger that shoots out from the mouth to infect others.

Fighting this threat is a motley group including the Centre for Disease Control’s Ephraim Goodweather, a Man With Issues, his colleague/occasional lover Nora Martinez, and the Van Helsing-like Abraham Setrakian, who had met the Master as a young man incarcerated in Treblinka, a place of rich pickings for predators of all kinds.  Later they are joined by Vasiliy Fet (whom nobody calls Boba), a tough pest control operative who brings his knowledge of rat behaviour to bear on this much larger infestation.  Together they bounce around chasing the Big Guy, while occasionally doing improbable things, such as Goodweather, on the run as a murder suspect, deciding to go home for a change of clothes.

It rattles along, but in all the descriptions of how this form of vampirism works on a biological level it does not address a major issue that puzzled me all the way through: why did The Master come to New York City in the first place?  He holes up – literally – under the World Trade Center building site in Manhattan, and as vampires cannot cross running water (some bits of the old lore actually have some basis in truth apparently, but why this bit we are not told) the authorities, if they would but listen to Goodweather, could theoretically trap him on the island.

So why select New York City, where there is a cohesive social structure, good health care, and a competent police force, and then situate his HQ in a potential trap?  He just fancies a bit of a challenge?  Why not go somewhere else, like Washington, cut off the head so to speak?  Or the favelas of Brazil, or better still some teeming city in Asia where the infection could be spread very fast.  He had to have help to get to the US, and it was a tricky operation crossing an ocean.  Why not just stay on Eurasian soil?

And once the infection begins spreading we see the city start to break down, but no hint of a coherent response from the authorities.  By the time such an epidemic got a firm hold there would surely be martial law and soldiers on the street.  The New York authorities are shown to be in denial, and there is no sense of other legal entities, including central government, even taking an interest.  Plus, with all this mayhem, what’s going on over at the Centre for Disease Control?  The Master, bent on world domination or whatever, isn’t going to be beaten with silver swords but in the lab, with an antidote.  Even I know that and Goodweather is supposed to be an expert.

I’m also trying to work out how Ephraim and Nora can go for several days without sleep and still function effectively.  There is no point at which they could get a decent kip during the course of the narrative. Oh, and just how did all those bodies disappear from the mortuary without anybody noticing them leave?  One turns up in Times Square and creates a fuss, but the rest seem to have been the souls of discretion.

This is not an equal opportunities anti-vampire crusade, and Poor old Nora is hard done by.  When Ephraim girds his loins to do battle alongside Setrakian and Fet he makes her stay at home looking after his 11-year old son.  The chaps go off and get into some amazing scrapes which they always come out of relatively unscathed, bashed about but nothing worse.  There is no Qunicey Morris equivalent in this version, even though the odds against the heroes are overwhelming and we have seen how efficient the undead are as killing machines elsewhere (a rather lazy tactic is to have characters with unpleasant qualities so the reader can enjoy witnessing them being dispatched, with no moral qualms).

As the sticker covering Hogan’s name on the cover indicates, it’s the first in a trilogy, and while there are hooks at the end they don’t feel compulsive enough to create an ache to know what happens next.  The terrain here is well-worn, and the treatment does not inject anything fresh into the mythos.  This volume at least is for fans of del Toro, and vampire fiction completists, only.  The books have been adapted as a television series and that may work better, being kinder to paper-thin characterisation and not allowing as much time for reflection on the implausibilities with which the plot is riddled.


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