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A ‘compelling and scary read’

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan book cover.

Book review – The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

– by Kaitlin Fontana

While the vampire genre may seem particularly wrung out at the moment, history has shown that there’s always a little blood left in it (I wish I could say that would be my last vampire pun, but alas, these are promises I cannot keep).

Hence, as Sookie Stackhouse makes sexy with the undead on HBO in True Blood and Stinky McEdward sparkles all Mormon-y in the Twilight, there is still room for Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan‘s The Strain (William Morrow/Harper Collins, June 2009, hdcvr, 401 pps, $26.95). That is, if it can keep the stakes high enough (sorry).

The second two books in this trilogy will be released in 2010 and 11, respectively. At the same time, del Toro is hard at work preparing to helm The Hobbit films. So nerds, be alert: if your personal taste Venn diagram has vampires on one side and hobbits on the other, the union of these is, at least for the next few years, anyway, del Toro.

And del Toro’s fingerprint – the brand of dark fantasy he’s plastered all over the Hellboy series and the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth, among others – is smudged all over The Strain. Co-author Hogan is a Hammett Award-winning genre fiction prince, and his marks are here as well. Given these fathers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that The Strain is a bit of a Frankenstein, from its procedural heart to its fantasy and horror limbs, to its crime novel brain. To it’s detriment? At times. But mostly not.

A plane from Germany lands at New York’s JFK airport. Moments after, all power and communication from the vessel cuts out. Ephraim Goodweather (what would a genre book be without a ridiculously named hero?) is a doctor and pandemic specialist with the Centre for Disease Control who is called in to check for airborne pathogens. Instead he finds… well, let’s just call it vampire activity. Just what kind of activity is what makes The Strain awesome, twisted and beautiful, all at once. Leave it to del Toro.

Guillermo del Toro and friend for The Strain

Guillermo del Toro and friend promote The Strain.

It should be said that while The Strain is compelling, scary reading, it does falter in the places that genre fiction often does – when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Goodweather’s marriage troubles are a bit predictable, and the characters sometimes read flat. Oh, and you know that moment in CSI (pick a series) right before the opening credits, where one CSI sets up a line, and then the punchline is something to do with the death?

Detective: No matter how you cut it, divorce sucks.

CSI: Frank, it’s a killer.

[Cue The Who]

There’s a bit of this in The Strain – “The plane was isolated in the hangar, like a corpse inside a massive morgue.” “‘Don’t demonize the sick,’ said Nora. ‘But now… now the sick are demons.’” But these missteps are tempered by the great procedural detail – I now know how quarantine in JFK airport would be handled, and how rat exterminators operate, among other things. Still, if this were all The Strain was offering, I’d rather be watching it than reading it (Fringe, anyone?).

No, that’s not all. Thanks, one assumes, to Guillermo, there’s also old vampire lore, and grand allusions to the universality of human atrocity. The Holocaust figures in, as does 9/11. This deft weaving of the mythical and political is what makes del Toro so great – let us not forget that Pan’s Labyrinth was set just after the Spanish Civil War. It’s also this appeal to the dark sides of the human soul that will keep people reading this series, despite some flaws. Heck, it might even convert some of the straightforward genre lovers into del Toro’s lush fantasy world. That is, if they let the right one in.


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