Review: The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Review by Jess Peacock

It was a good year, 1979. I was a skinny runt of an eight year old, held fairly non-neogotiable aspirations of a career as a Jedi Knight, and lived, as every eight year old should, oblivious to the fact that childhood was a finite arrangement. It was on my eighth birthday, as a matter of fact, when I settled in with my family to watch a highly anticipated CBS mini-series by the name of 'Salem’s Lot. Little did I know the effect the show would have on my life.

How intensely my heart pounded when young Ralphie Glick emerged from the heavy fog outside of his brother Danny’s window…the deathly scrape of dirty fingernails on the window...those eyes...that smile. The visceral blanket of terror that gripped me when newly turned Danny Glick visited a sleeping Mark Petrie. The living nightmare I suffered through when Mike Ryerson returned for Jason Burke, patiently sitting on a rocking chair in the kind old man’s guestroom (“Look at me, teacher…”). It was these pale visages that haunted my nightmares for weeks after, hovering above my bed as I slept, smiling, leering at me from the impenetrable blackness of my closet (which always seemed to be ajar no matter how many times I closed it).

One might assume that such terror would have driven me to the lighter side of childish pursuits. I found myself, however, drawn to the unsettling fear I experienced as I gazed out the window of my bedroom at night, wondering, in all of that darkness, if some evil thing was staring right back at me. And so I petitioned, pleaded with, and cajoled my parents into buying me the novel 'Salem’s Lot. While only eight at the time, I was already a voracious reader, tearing through various Hardy Boys novels and whatever else passed for young adult literature during the waning years of the 1970’s. They soon relented, and on Christmas Eve, 1979, as my family drove around visiting various relatives with a car full of presents, I started to read what would become my favorite novel of all time.

This is an important preface to my review for The Strain, the first book in a planned trilogy from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, for it looks to carry on a worthy tradition. 'Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King’s own admission, was a homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with just a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers thrown into the mix. The Strain goes a step further, mashing together Stoker and King while adding a healthy heaping of CSI procedurals, with just a hint of eschatological histrionics thrown in for good measure.

Since the mid-1990’s, it has been next to impossible to find truly horrific tales of the vampire anywhere in the media. It seemed the gothic and theological roots of the undead had been gutted, leaving the vampire to become either kick-ass kung-fu anti-heroes, or tortured emo souls who bitch and moan about how horrible it is to live forever with ultra-cool super powers. With the exception of author David Wellington’s excellent vamp-centric novels (13 Bullets, 99 Coffins, etc.), this shockwave of virtually fangless immortals continues today in Underworld, Twilight, and the vampire chic-lit movement which has spawned the HBO series True Blood.

Similar to the undead in 'Salem’s Lot, The Strain’s vampires are not sexy, brooding, or suddenly endowed with Matrix-like fighting abilities. They are monsters, plain and simple, with just enough of their former lives embedded in their quickly evaporating humanity to remember their loved ones and neighbors when they set out into the night, scratching on windows and knocking on doors. They are demons, more akin to del Toro’s Reaper vampires from Blade 2 than anything else. A hive minded geometric growth of writhing darkness that enters New York City on the wings of a fictional Boeing 777, and rapidly tentacles out into the sewers, basements, and subway tunnels of the Big Apple.

The epic scope of the novel covers a lot of ground. The big bad of the story, an ageless vampire by the name of Sardu, is everything an eternal beast should be: powerful, hungry, vicious, intelligent, and unabashedly evil. He does not lament his plight, but revels in his power and blood lust, always a step ahead of the few humans who know the truth, eager to unleash a literal Hell on Earth. The only thing standing in his way, of course, is a small band of humans led by an aged Professor, Abraham Setrakian, who faced off against Sardu once before in the living nightmare of Treblinka (in the world of The Strain, vampires nest near tragedy, and Sardu’s New York lair is no different).

While one assumes that Hogan, winner of the 2005 Hammett Award for Prince of Thieves, pulled the heaviest of the plough through the writing process, it is undoubtedly del Toro’s fingerprints and imagination smeared over every page. The director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy reportedly wrote the outline for the literary trilogy as a proposal for a television series for Fox, envisioning a three-season arc akin to The Wire.

Not a perfect novel by any measurement, The Strain perhaps suffers from an overabundance of characters, diluting opportunities to flesh out and expand characterizations of the central heroes and villains. My guess and hope is that these minor roles, which seemingly vanish in the final third of the book, will play a recurrent role in the next two titles. Otherwise, del Toro and Hogan would be wise to allow deeper cuts in future editing sessions.

Despite such minor issues, The Strain succeeds in not only updating and expanding the modern vampire mythos, but also in bringing some genuine horror to The New York Times bestseller list. Hogan and del Toro have effectively laid the groundwork for what could become the seminal horror series in literature for years to come.