by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
William Morrow (Harper Collins publisher)
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
For a keen reader, there is only one thing more frustrating than a bad book and that is a book that disappoints. There are some books that promise so much and deliver so little that it is hard not to pour scorn and derision on those who bring them forth into the world in such a lacklustre state. To say that I had high hopes for this book would be like saying the Titanic was a bit of a boating accident. I was so excited by the prospect of its publication that I had difficulty holding my water. Guillermo Del Toro, the visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth? The guy who’s directing the two-movie adaptation of The Hobbit? This book, I convinced myself, is going to be incredible. With such keen anticipation, it was inevitable that the crushing weight of reality would soon come to bear - celebrity-penned novels are rarely good. The Strain is no exception to this rule.
The novel opens with an intriguing premise – a plane lands at JFK airport then mysteriously loses contact with the control tower. Upon opening, the lifeless bodies of the passengers and crew are found. Those of you who have read Dracula might well already be drawing parallels with that novel’s arrival of the Demeter in Whitby. This isn’t the only occasion where the authors pay tribute to the classic text. There’s the Van Helsing-esque Professor Setrakian, a character so steeped in cliché it’s a wonder the other main players in the novel don’t notice it. The authors have made an effort to give the novel a modern flavour. The characters use mobile phones and the internet to communicate with one another. The first response to a plane full of corpses is to assume terrorism. New York is still recovering from 9/11 and some of the action takes place beneath the building site at Ground Zero. All of these references serve to set the novel very much in the here and now but whereas Bram Stoker used similar devices to highlight fin de siècle anxieties of the modern world losing touch with the traditions of the past, Del Toro and Hogan struggle to say anything so profound.
If you haven’t guessed already, The Strain is a vampire novel. Unlike Anne Rice’s noble immortals or the love-sick, limp-wristed teens of Stephanie Meyer, Hogan and Del Toro’s take on the vampiric mythos is to treat the affliction like a disease. Vampirism, they explain, is a virus carried by parasitic “blood worms” that alter the body chemistry of their host. The resulting creatures are crazed, slavering brutes with little or no humanity remaining. Throw in the blood-sucking tentacle that shoots from their mouth (Alien, anyone?) and one finds it hard to understand how any of the characters find it difficult to slay the beasties! Unfortunately for the authors, vampirism as a disease isn’t an original concept either. This was first explored 55 years ago in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, an infinitely more intelligent and satisfying read.
The main storyline of The Strain focuses on the improbably named Ephrahim Goodweather, a divorced doctor working for the Centre for Disease Control. His own discovery of the nature of the virus is, predictably, dismissed by his superiors. These superiors are in turn controlled by the sinister Stoneheart Group, a shadowy corporation with a vested interest in the destruction of the human race (for some reason). Don’t be alarmed, I’m not giving away spoilers here. Most of this information is freely available in the opening chapters to the least discerning reader. The plot is so achingly predictable that it seems inconceivable to have come from the mind of Del Toro, one of the most original horror directors of recent years.
The main villain, an antediluvian vampire known only as “The Master” is suitably shadowy and mysterious to begin with but overexposure of this grisly fiend means that he quickly loses his power to scare. The climactic showdown is a bit of a damp squib and the novel ends with the promise of further instalments by which some kind of resolution might be achieved. The best horror writers work through subtlety and gradually cranking up the tension. Del Toro and Hogan give so many hints that something bad is going to happen that when it finally does it seems almost an anticlimax. By breaking the cardinal rule of showing their monsters too early they leave themselves disempowered when the need comes to terrify their readers later on. No amount of gore and grisly description can make up for the shortage of actual tension and the flat conclusion leaves the reader feeling cheated.
If this had been written by a first-time author, it wouldn’t have made it past the slush-pile. The sad fact is that this has been published simply as a means for Harper Collins to ride on the coat-tails of Del Toro’s success as a film-maker. However talented he is as a director, this half-baked effort shows that crossing over into fiction might be harder than imagined. Not even the assistance of co-author Chuck Hogan can help this novel from feeling like a tired old retread of all those horror tropes seen countless times before. A huge let-down, the only strain being the effort required to complete it.
Hereward L.M. Proops