Anyone who’s seen Guillermo del Toro’s recent movies—Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies (and a two-part The Hobbit on the way)—probably expect anything spawned by that mind to be boldly imaginative. Del Toro takes risks and he paints large while paying attention to the most meticulous details.
So when del Toro teamed up with Chuck Hogan to write a vampire trilogy, fans understandably expected something crazy, crazy, crazy good.
With the first part of that trilogy, The Strain, fans do indeed get something good—but it lacks the crazy, crazy, crazy.
The book starts with the arrival a transcontinental jet at JFK. The plane stops dead on the tarmac. Air traffic controls and emergency responders can’t figure out what’s going on, so everyone goes into terrorist-response mode.
Enter Dr. Eph Goodweather and his assistant Nora Martinez of the CDC. They arrive as part of the response team in case of any biological threats. Goodweather is the first to realize, after a series of inexplicable events (of course), that what they face is an infection far worse than any mere virus.
Think “Vampire Apocalypse.”
Yeah, instead of a plague of zombies taking over the world, the premise del Toro and Hogan set up is that a vampire plague will take over the world.
Vampire plague aside, kudos go out to the authors for taking a radically different approach to vampirism. It’s so radically different, though, that die-hard vampire fans may have a tough time reconciling the authors’ take with their own thoughts about what a good, old-fashioned vampire is supposed to be.
Love their vision or hate it, del Toro and Hogan have at least one thing going for them: These are no mamby-pamby cute, sexy vampires who live tortured, tragic lives. The vampire lord of The Strain, Sardu, is nasty, calculating, and cruel. Whereas even Dracula had a little charm, Sardu comes across more like Max Shreck’s walking cadaver, Nosferatu—but bigger and meaner. And no sexiness.
Sardu has a backstory that might lay the seeds for sympathy in one of the subsequent volumes, but for now, he’s The Big Evil.
And therein lies one of the problems with The Strain. The book tries—not especially hard—to rise above genre fiction and be more of a mainstream thriller, but it just can’t quite break free of the trappings of horror. Sardu, for instance, remains a one-dimensional horror. The book’s central mystery bedevils everyone until a wise old man, Abraham Van Helsing–er, actually, Abraham Setrakian–shows up deus ex machinas-like with the answers. No one believes the hero until it’s too late.
Fortunately, the book avoids gratuitous depictions of graphic violence and focuses instead on mood and tone, which are big plusses (and del Toro trademarks), and the book is paced exceptionally well. But the imaginative firepower that one might expect from del Toro never really explodes with full force, and that keeps the book from becoming crazy, crazy, crazy good.
Is it fair to judge the book that way? I’d say, “No,” except splashed right across the top of the book is the phrase “From the creator of the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth.” If the publisher wants to pimp that out, then del Toro has to live and die by the plug.
But judged on its own merits and not by the del Toro baggage a reader might bring to the book, The Strain certainly provides lots of chills, some believable characters, and an interesting premise. Those things alone make it a worthwhile read. The Strain doesn’t have to be crazy, crazy, crazy good to still be good.
Will del Toro and Hogan’s vision of vampirism catch on? I still don’t know if I’m sold (although, I admit, I’m looking forward to the next installment of the trilogy, slated for 2010). But one thing’s for sure: it sure beats teen heartthrob vampirism. These guys make the undead terrifying, just they way they should be.