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REVIEW: The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

REVIEW SUMMARY: Makes me realize how enjoyable vampire stories can be.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A vampire plague threatens New York City.

PROS: Good suspense; likable characters; a somewhat believable treatment of vampires; story gives off a cool zombie vibe.
CONS: Ephram is a little slow in picking up the obvious signs of vampirism.
BOTTOM LINE: A great summer read that keeps you interested the whole way through.

I blame Charlie Huston.

After a bad reading experience years ago with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I had (stupidly) sworn off vampire fiction. But then I read Charlie Huston’s urban vampire noir Already Dead because it hooked me from a casual browse. Its sequels soon followed and I realized I had to rethink things. What was it that I thought I didn’t like? Were there other worthy vampire books out there? The latest book in my quest to find out is The Strain, written by Guillermo del Toro (yes, that Guillermo del Toro) and Chuck Hogan.

The Strain concerns the beginning of a plague that threatens New York City. A plane at JFK airport goes suddenly dark immediately after landing, whereupon the authorities discover that it is filled with corpses. Thinking it’s the result of some bio-threat, city epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather is called in to investigate. The details that begin to emerge are strange (to say the least) and Eph soon realizes that this is no ordinary threat. He soon meets Setrakian, a pawnbroker who knows far more than he should about the facts of the case, which may be linked to an age-old threat on humanity.

Again, I’m not incredibly well-read in vampire fiction (Andy Warhol’s Dracula by Kim Newman is another one I enjoyed) but this novel was appealing in all the right ways. First is the drama that builds up as the facts begin to emerge. It’s obvious to us that the plague is vampirism and thanks to Omniscient Reader Syndrome, it seems as if Eph takes way too long to recognize the signs of vampirism, even if only as a joke. Eph is still likable character, though. He’s portrayed as a caring father who’s fighting for custody of his son (Zack) from a failed marriage with his ex (Kelly). It’s the love for his family that drives some of his later actions and causes some awkwardness with his colleague and new love interest, Nora.

Next is the back story of Setrakian, a WWII survivor who once met the Master vampire that now threatens the United States yet, oddly, somehow manages to not alert any authorities in the intervening decades. Setrakian is the “Van Helsing” character who also serves as the encyclopedia of vampire knowledge. He differentiates between vampire fact (like how the “infection” causes the victims to crave blood) and fiction (vampires are not harmed by crucifixes, for example) and things that have evolved into legend (vampires do cast a reflection, thank you, except it’s a bit out of focus). Setrakian also hints at vampire history; specifically about vampire clans at war and how the latest incursion on American soil spells even bigger trouble for (living) humans.

Eventually, Eph and Nora’s medical investigation gives way the real and bloody horror that civilization is faced with. The Strain takes place over a few days and Eph, Setrakian and Nora understand that they must act decisively and quickly. It’s here that The Strain, while being a vampire novel, emits the vibe of a zombie novel. There are graphic scenes that show the evil of the threat and also allow some other heroes to emerge, like the street-smart loser Gus and the city exterminator named Fet, who recognizes some strange behavior in the city’s rat population.

It’s probably no secret that things don’t go very well given that this is the first book in a trilogy – even less so when you consider the titles of the following books are The Fall and The Night Eternal. The way things are headed, it looks like we’ll see more of the vampire clans and their impending war, and that’s something I’m definitely looking forward to. For now, The Strain makes a great summer read — which is to say that it may not be an Earth-shattering literary experience, but it is good fun and keeps you interested the whole way through.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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