Review: The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan

Posted on Sun 14 November 2010 in Dispatches • 5 min read

I recently read The Strain by the creative team of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan on a recommendation from a friend. I didn’t know anything about Chuck Hogan but I was of course familiar with the films of Del Toro, which I had enjoyed. It took me a little while to get around to it on my reading list, but I eventually picked it up for my Kindle.

The Strain cover

Vampires as disease…

The Strain is the first book in a trilogy that deals with a vampiric threat that may end the world as we know it. This first volume deals with the attempt to contain the danger within New York City, as well as introducing the reader to the nature of the threat and the main players within the drama. In many ways, it plays out similar to a disaster movie, the only twist being that instead of a natural disaster, the event in question is a population explosion of vampires within the city.

Now, don’t let the v-word frighten you off, I’m just as tired of the vampire tropes as anyone. Del Toro and Hogan do something very clever here and have made their vampires the result of a parasitic disease that alters the host both physically and mentally. This transformation is horrific, and the results firmly eliminate any notion of a sexy morose vampire from the reader’s mind. The vampires of this book are monsters, pure and simple. Also notable is the inclusion of a larval form of the vampire, which is a mindless creature of pure thirst, strength and pain as they complete their metamorphosis. At this stage of their development, they are not unlike the “fast zombies” of modern cinema, and this dovetails well with the concept of vampirism as a plague event. The end result of which is that the book is able to borrow equally from the tropes of vampire, zombie and medical thrillers, which play together remarkably well.

While the themes of vampirism as developed within the book work well together, there are other parts of the story that fall flat. In the first book, with a few notable exceptions, the vampires encountered are in the larval stage described above, which means that while the creatures are certainly dangerous, they’re not particularly interesting beyond their strange biology, so the story needs to depend on the relationships between the human characters in order to keep the reader interested. The book is fairly successful with this in some cases, but unfortunately all of these cases are centered around the short vignettes of minor characters, whereas the relationships of the primary protagonists may leave the reader cold.

I think the core problem with the protagonists is that they appear to have been produced by cookie-cutter. Let’s run down a few examples:

  • Eph, the supposed hero of the piece, a CDC agent who becomes aware of the truth of the infection. He’s a divorced man, struggling to earn joint custody rights of his son, which is difficult because he is just so darned dedicated to his job. Oh, and he’s a recovering alcoholic as well, which I think rounds out the trifecta of stereotypical character traits for the hero of a disaster movie. The only thing here that I hadn’t seen before is that now instead of alcohol he craves whole milk, which is kind of a goofy detail, but effective as it’s the only part of that character that sticks out every time that I think of him.
  • Setrakian, the wise old Jewish man, who encountered a vampire back in the death camps of the Nazis, and then dedicated himself to learning their nature and hunting them. Setrakian actually has his moments in the book, but I’ve seen this character done before too many times. An outstanding example of which would be psychologist Saul Laski from Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons, which I highly recommend.
  • Nora, who is Eph’s partner at the CDC, and also a former lover. You would expect a former workplace relationship to smolder a little more, especially when working this closely during a crisis, but honestly this one gets treated like a footnote. Nora exists so that Eph has someone to bounce dialogue back and forth with, and doesn’t really exist as a character in her own right.

There are others of course: skeptical bureaucrats, megalomaniacal millionaires, pesky lawyers and then some. However, there are some of those moments with the minor characters that I mentioned above, scenes depicting fear, love and even desperation that can make your heart melt. Unfortunately, these are just short stops along the way and don’t appear that they will have any continuing bearing on the story. The end result is that the story feels primarily plot-driven, and I didn’t get overly attached to any of the protagonists.

The Final Verdict

The Strain is not a bad book. It has a great opening hook, some memorable moments and the story cruises along at a jaunty pace. However, it’s also not a particularly great book, either. The primary characters are predictable templates, and as a result their relationships between each other feel like they lack conviction. The twist on vampirism was a welcome change in a time where the genre is dominated by sexy and lovable vampires, and there are hints in the plot of politics and dissension among the most ancient vampires of the world, though it doesn’t really come into play during this book.

Ultimately, The Strain is a fun book, but it didn’t blow my hair back. At this point, I’m unsure if I’ll be reading the next book in the series or not. If it’s more of the same I’ll probably just skip it, but the hints in this book of fully developed vampires suggest that their may be some interesting characters to be found among the new-born villains in next two parts of the story, which would be a welcome addition.

If you’re looking for something a little different in vampire fiction, I would suggest you check out the aforementioned Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons, otherwise if you are just looking for a quick, fun horror read, The Strain should meet your needs.