"You're the disease, I'm the cure," is a common reprise in crime and horror novels. If only crime or evil were so simplistic and so easily cured. Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan both know that nothing is simple and only death cures all, and they make ample use of this knowledge in 'The Strain,' a superb spin on vampires that puts readers at death's door and then ushers them beyond that portal sans anesthesia.
'The Strain' starts with "The Legend of Jusef Sardu," a fairy tale-like story set well before World War II, that introduces Abraham Setrakian to the reader and Setrakian to nothing less than spiritual evil. It's a nice entry into the story, with a homey, human feel that gets sliced to ribbons when we fast forward to "very soon now" and JFK International Airport, where Flight 753 lands filled with dead bodies, and four survivors. Ephraim Goodweather is the front man for the CDC, called in to find out what sort of disease has killed everyone in such an unusual manner. The bodies are sent to the morgue, and the survivors to a hospital for examination. Del Toro and Hogan quickly and grippingly create a worst-case scenario version of vampirism as a disease and have one hell of a good time de-constructing vampire mythology with forensic technology.
Pacing and plotting in 'The Strain' are superb. The characters have indeed read horror novels and seen horror movies. They don’t split up and they don't go into basements alone, but alas, that which confronts them is a virulent, intelligent and well-directed disease for which the victims become active and almost unstoppable vectors. The novel is expertly constructed, and as it is the first part of a projected trilogy, it takes its time putting in place all the pieces. Even though the stories of the characters are left incomplete, the novel has a satisfying finish that will leave you wanting the next installment but still satisfied by a wonderfully ripping yarn.
The vampires of 'The Strain' are nasty and very monsterific, inflicting terrible pain on their victims, who then become vampires in a process of conversion even more terrifying than the death that gets them there. Several heart-rending scenes put readers in the minds of humans who realize they are slowly becoming monsters, at first hating then eventually succumbing to the growing bloodlust — and putting another victim in jeopardy. Del Toro and Hogan have really worked out an effectively consistent biology of vampires but without reducing the spiritual terror. These vampires aren't simply voracious eaters with nasty habits, they are indeed soul-chillingly evil beings.
'The Strain' reads smoothly because the characters are extremely well-drawn. Eph and Nora, the CDC leads, are smart enough to question their inclinations to disbelieve when confronted with obvious vampires, and Eph's home life — he's in the middle of an unpleasant divorce and custody battle — plays a nice part in the plot. Setrakian offers a nice echo of Van Helsing, but has a considerably more complicated past that involves death camps as well as fairy tales. And late in the novel we meet Vasily Fet, a ratcatcher with lore drawn from Robert Sullivan's non-fiction book 'Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.' It's vampires as vermin.
Del Toro and Hogan collaborate seamlessly and effortlessly achieve and united authorial voice. The prose style seems consistent, but ranges in tone from fairy-tale to forensic, with more than a few grave notes of hideous awe. Del Toro and Hogan clearly understand that the horror and beauty are both aspects of awe and the sense of wonder that permeates science fiction. There are passages of terrorizing horror that some readers will want to read aloud or read again, just to experience that frisson of fear so expertly invoked.
It's tempting to dismiss any new vampire novel out of hand. But 'The Strain' is really something pretty special, a toe-tapping page-turner that is robust and satisfying. There are enough scenes of grotty terror to put off the faint of heart – and enough tension and thrills to bring them right back to the book, following the pumping, bloody pulse of the prose until the final page. Repulsion-attraction proves to be an effective means of keeping readers riveted, even when they know that reading bring them nightmares. We welcome those nightmares; they're not so easy to come by as one might think.
New to the Agony Column
08-08-11: Commentary : Simon Rich Wishes For 'Elliot Allagash' : The Unbottled Genie
Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Simon Rich : "My goal as a writer, more than anything is just to write something that people will finish voluntarily."
08-03-11: Commentary : Scott Simon Knows 'Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other' : The Family We Choose
07-28-11: Commentary : Bruce Duffy Proclaims 'Disaster was My God' : Seasoned in Hell
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Five Books With Alan Cheuse : The Lotus Singers edited by Trevor Carolan, Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs, Edited by Helen Mitsios, Disaster Was My God, by Bruce Duffy, Triple Crossing by Sebastian Rotella and We All Fall Down by Michael Harvey
07-27-11: Commentary : Arielle Eckstutt and David Henry Sterry write 'The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully' : Swiss Army Knife for Would-Be Writers
07-15-11: Commentary : David Darlington Searches for 'An Ideal Wine' : One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection — and Profit — in California
Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Phone Interview with David Darlington : "...the fact that so many wineries mouth this catechism while behind the scenes they are doing something completely different..."
07-13-11: Commentary : Joe R. Lansdale's 'Crucified Dreams' : Urbane Extreme
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Howard V. Hendrix Interviewed at SF in SF on May 9, 2011 : "We're going to bring in people from all different menus who have talked about Mars."