Monday, August 17, 2009

"The Strain"

For those of you who don't know, The Strain is a new novel by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo de Toro, director of such fantasy films as Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, as well as Mimic. Intended as the first of a trilogy, part of the intent behind it is to counter the "romantic" vampires a la Anne Rice and Twilight.

On that level, the novel certainly succeeds. You do know a review of a book is going to abound with spoilers, right? If you don't, well this one does. Warnings have now been uttered. Proceed at your own risk. As the title suggests, vampires in The Strain are an infection, one that more-or-less turns a human being into a kind of insect, with initially just about that much intellect. As the mutation proceeds, higher brain functions fade away along with all trace of sexuality (including genitalia). Feeding takes place via a stinger -- a meter-long 'tongue' that pulsates and changes color while drawing blood (that visual alone gives me the creeps) -- and the victim becomes a colony for worms that re-write DNA, shaping what was once a human being into a walking contagion, voracious and extremely difficult to kill. Some of the most horrific parts of the book are from the POV of those infected as they feel themselves change. One, a quietly heroic type, actually chains himself in a shed to protect his wife and children. Another is a rock star whom at first everyone thinks is just still wearing his makeup and contact lenses.

But they aren't the worst horror. Nor is the Ancient whose arrival in New York may herald the end of humankind's dominion. The worst are those who see a disaster looming and refuse to act, those with a duty to protect who seek instead to calm. When a 777 jumbo jet lands, then goes immediately silent, everyone involved realizes Something Is Up. When it turns out the plane is full of dead people (shades of Stoker's 'Demeter') and contains an unauthorized coffin, at first people are spooked but try to do their jobs. But as events spiral into a weird pattern that clearly threatens pretty much everyone, some blindly refuse to see the danger. They mustn't cause a panic. This cannot be happening, so of course it isn't. Let us grab a stupid theory that explains nothing but does allow us to place the blame on someone. (Echoes of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, if you've a theatrical bent.)

Now, there is one worse group. Not merely the cowards and incompetents -- the traitors. The Ancient Vampire has allies among humans. Imagine the mindset of someone who would quietly endanger or kill thousands, tens of thousands, millions of fellow human beings just for...what? A paycheck? A feeling of power? To become immortal, at the price of no longer being oneself?

The vampires at least are obeying their nature, and have precious little choice.

Mutiple POVs in novels often end up problematical, imho. Retaining the individuality of characters can become too much. Frankly, this is one of my complaints about Stephen King's novel The Stand. But The Strain very nearly avoids this. To be perfectly honest, while the main characters are for the most part vivid and alive, they aren't equally engaging. But then, perhaps that is the point? Eph, Gus, Setrakian, etc. each resonate with different kinds of people. Myself, I find the Van Helsing-esque Abraham Setrakian in many ways the most compelling protagonist, a man who as a boy confronted an age-old Horror and declared war upon it. But Nora, the girlfriend of the obvious 'hero' never comes alive for me. I'm hoping that will change with the next two entries in what is being billed as a trilogy.

For the record, the book reads fast with an excellent rhythm and ever-growing pace (much like the danger which spreads like a fever through New York). Took me approximately two-and-a-half days to finish, one of those days spent mostly at my job. Keep in mind the novel has over 800 pages! If you're interested in such things, the plot clearly contains elements of Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as Stephen King's Salem's Lot. The vampires remind me of the Reapers in Blade II (directed by Del Toro) as well as Brian Lumley's Wamphyri (minus any sexuality). One is reminded of Richard Matheson's seminal novel I Am Legend.

Hosts of mysteries remain unsolved at novel's end, including the exact nature of the mysterious factions among the seven Ancient Vampires, as well as perhaps some hint as to the origins of the monsters. We are left with one character in a precarious (and weird) situation, a vampire plague running rampant in New York, a very personal danger having risen from the grave and aimed at some of our leads, while the person with at least some of the answers hovers a little too close to death's door for anyone's comfort.

Am eagerly awaiting the next book.

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