Book #21: The Strain

It's a distinct possibility I'll get slagged for the following comments, but it feels right: it's a place I have to go to if I'm going to be honest about this review. Please stave off your pitchforks until the end - it'll give me a head start up the path.

The Strain is, finally, thankfully, a modern vampire novel for guys.

Everywhere I go I'm confronted by the Sweet Valley High-ification of the Vampire myth, thanks in large part to the marketing juggernaut that is the Twilight industry. The original creatures of the night are fast becoming de-fanged: they brood, they glower in model poses, they go to high school and they sparkle in the frickin' sunlight, ferchrissakes! A world of 16-year old girls (and their mothers - the most incredible thing about the Twilight phenomenon as I've experienced it is that mothers and daughters appear to both be under the swooning spell of broody Edward Cullin) now have the image of a young 20-something boy/man as the new Prince of Darkness.

Maybe I was premature to worry so quickly. Guillermo del Toro, known for the visual feasts of PAN'S LABYRINTH, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and the HELLBOY films has together with thriller writer Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves), taken some of the undeveloped ideas he tried to put forth in the second BLADE film (bet you forgot he directed that one, huh?) and combine it with more recent global fears to create The Strain, where vampirism is a deadly virus, one that takes no prisoners - alive or dead, if you're been bit the disease has been transmitted, and you'll be up and about, thirsting for blood.

There are seven of them. Ancient, living for thousands of years, they have always been here, living across the world in tentative alliances with one another. One, however, has gone rogue, and with the help of a rich industrial has come across the waters to America where it plans to begin the eventual destruction of humanity and set itself up as the Supreme organism on this planet. A plane lands at JFK completely dark, when the CDC arrive all the passenger save four are dead. And what looks like a terrorist threat becomes so much worse when not only do the four survivors begin their horrible transformation, but all the "dead" passengers suddenly up and leave the morgues, thirsting just as much as the four apparent survivors.

The vampires themselves has a close similarity to the "reaper" vampires in del Toro's BLADE II - nasty, savage beasts who jaws unhinge. Instead of fangs, they have a sort of "second tongue" capable of shooting out from their mouths up t o six feet. There is nothing remotely romantic about these creatures - indeed, part of their final transformation is losing their sex organs altogether. Aligned against these forces of darkness are members of the CDC, a old pawn shop keeper who has been hunting the Rogue since surviving the concentration camps in WWI, a Russian exterminator, and a young Latino thief, caught up in a power-struggle between the Rogue and the other Ancients.

It's a somewhat unwieldy cast, but del Toro and Hogan keep things moving along a quick clip, alternating between the pairs of characters and smaller, sketch passages designed to show the impact the vampire threat is having around the city. Nothing is spared in their descriptions of what happens the beasts' victims - be prepared for small children, animals, and even babies to not be spared. The best passages are those t hat attempt to investigate and explain just how the vampire virus works to turn its victim into one of the supernatural devils. In other areas the writing's a bit clunky, but it never took me out of the action and pacing of the book.

When it all ends you're set up for an even bigger battle as the threat, even while escaping the city and seemingly bent on taking over the country, suddenly finds dubious help in a mysterious group aligned with the remaining Ancients. del Toro and Hogan look to be making a global adventure here, and in their new, radical presentation of the Vampire it's one I'm looking forward to continuing investigating.

All this Vampire talk got me nostalgic for some of the vampire stories I've enjoyed over the years that might have some bearing on the influences of The Strain. Check 'em out below:

  • Starting with del Toro, check out BLADE II - it's by no means a great movie, but the "Reaper Vampires" seem to be a direct influence based on the descriptions in the book. When I read The Strain, this is what I envisioned.
  • Strangely, BLADE II isn't del Toro's first crack at his version of the Vampire myth. For a vastly different take on things, check out his first film CRONOS - a very good film that is a far cry from anything I've ever read or seen about vampires.
  • I wasn't a huge fan of where the book series went, but Neil Jordan's film version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is my pick for the best "Vampire as Dandy" film in recent memory. Capping off films, check out NEAR DARK for another off-the-beaten-path Vampire flick.
  • Books, books, books...I would be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite vampire book of all time: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. 'Salem's Lot is a great look at the traditional Vampire myth transplanted to the time capsule America that is the setting for much of Stephen King's best work. And I would be played if I didn't give at least passing mention to Ann Rice's incredibly popular series of Lestat novels, the best (IMHO) being The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, and Memnoch the Devil. I'm sure there are a host of others, but those were the ones that readily to mind.

* Since it may come up, yes, I'm well aware of the Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse novels. I have the first four books in a box set that are currently unread, as they were a gift to my wife. I am, however, watching at this moment the first season of True Blood, based on the series. Pretty good, even if it so far (I'm only four episodes in) seems like a quirky twist on the brooding, sultry vampire that Twilight also uses, the quirk ( a good one) being the world the show is set in, where vampires are "coming out the closet" as it were.