Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: The Strain

I knew that I'd found a winner in writer/director Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain when I realized that I didn't want to be left alone while reading it. You can bet that it went double when the light of the sun traded spaces with the night and its unknowns...
    Quite fittingly, night is where our story begins, along a lonely stretch of JFK tarmac where a derelict aircraft has arrived from Europe. Landing with no apparent signal or notification,  the craft is finally boarded by a CDC response team when bio-terrorism is suspected.
The consternation upon boarding the craft is eminent - all but four passengers are D.O.A. No sign of a struggle or violence. The only other discovery made upon the ghost aeroplane is an elongated and ornate box carved from ebony and filled with rich, black earth...
    If the above set up doesn't sound vaguely familiar, then consider yourself shamed. If it does jingle the bells of recognition for you, don't worry - the writers of The Strain have done more than cut and paste a re-telling of Bram Stoker's classic Dracula. In a keen genre-bending twist, the writers have managed to merge supernatural mythos with modern day paranoia - the cursed blood of the damned has merely been enhanced by the microbe terror of disease and pandemic outbreak.
    The Strain initially focuses on the characters Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather and his assistant Nora Martinez, the two leaders of the Canary response team responsible for investigating Flight 777. As the pair come closer in their investigation to uncovering what looks to be a massive conspiracy involving a dying billionaire's hellish quest for immortality, Dr. Goodweather finds that he has been blacklisted, thus transforming him into a fugitive on the run from his own government.
While Eph and Kelly dodge the spooks of ghost agencies and government officials, their desperation leads them to the Van Helsing of this story, Professor Abraham Setrakian. A Holocaust survivor of Romanian Jewish decent, Setrakian's haunted past may serve to aid them all in their mutual struggles against the forces of death, as he is one who has encountered the master strigoi and survived. As the city crumbles beneath the weight of spreading infection and death, the renegade vampire-hunting team must make the stand that no one else can.   
    I had a great difficulty putting this book down, but it was not without it's disappointment. The only downside that I found within the 401 pages of The Strain was a certain dryness of the actual characters themselves. At times, it was all I could do to remain convinced of their depth, instead hoping to get back to the horror in the form of Del Toro's God-awful monstrosities. Eph's drives, by way of instance, are a tad formulaic, and it shows in the form of hurried narration and tired dialogue. The vampires, by way of contrast, are given ample attention by way of description, and their motivations are more than clear. After all, how could they not be?
The vampires in The Strain are far from the ethereal beauty of Anne Rice's blood drinkers, or the European romance of Dracula. More akin to Del Toro's monsters from the Blade franchise, these nasties are hairless, red-eyed  abominations, all smooth skin and alabaster, with an elongated talon in place of a middle finger.
The creatures' distinct  feeding habits are a demonstration in grotesquery also. Instead of fangs, the ghouls are equipped with a six-foot long stinger that's rooted beneath the tongue, an instrument that not only extracts blood, but infects the victim as well. With paper thin hide, the capillary worms that carry the disease can be seen wriggling beneath the surface of their skin - just the right touch of gut-turning detail.
    The ways in which The Strain mirror Bram Stoker's work are complimentary,certainly.  I felt like I was going to be disappointed by such a stark borrowing of story, but the narrative is chock full of the style that I've come to admire so strongly in Del Toro ( the immaculate and near-perfect Pan's Labyrinth comes to mind).  As for author Chuck Hogan, I can't say that I'm familiar with his work, but I do know that his novel Prince of Thieves was used as the basis for the Hollywood production The Town.  For what it's worth, The Strain carries with it a highly cinematic feel - however, I imagine that this particular quality owes more to the input of Mr. Del Toro.
    Despite the aggravation of only slightly unbelievable characters, this book was one of the best that I'd read in some time. Even with the Dracula template, The Strain brings its own dynamic and themes, and I believe that they reflect the story with a perfect symmetry. While the story does skirt around the edges of the supernatural or occult, it's still quick to illustrate the depth of human knowledge in the face of the unknown. As Eph's wife observes during a total solar eclipse that precedes the carnage of The Strain, " ... but how could any sentient being not imbue it with some significance, positive or negative, religious or psychic or otherwise? Just because we understand how something works doesn't necessarily mean that we understand it..."
    I couldn't agree more.
    If you're still digging the vampire fiction wave, then I highly suggest that you catch The Strain. I guarantee, you won't be sorry.  You may, however, not wish to turn out the light.

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