on May 20, 2009
Well, if you're idea of fun includes vampires, biological horror, scary folk tales, and the undead walking the earth, then I have a recommendation for you:
THE STRAIN - book one of the trilogy of novels from Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan.
If you're a big GDT fan then you are getting some classic, old school Guillermo here. This is his triumphant return to horror in a whole new medium.
The end result?
BLADE 2 meets CSI.
THE STRAIN is not a meditation like PAN'S LABYRINTH, or a metaphorical folk tale like THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. It is an in-your-face horror thriller that is not for the squeamish.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It is very well written and honestly, I couldn't put it down. For my money, nothing holds my interest like a vampire plague, and this book has some cool new twists to the vampire mythology.
The premise of a vampire "infecting" its victims with a virus is not completely new: I've seen the idea before. What THE STRAIN does well is explore the infection of the unfortunate victim in great detail. The main character of THE STRAIN is Ephraim Goodweather, epidemiologist for the Center of Disease Control. His investigation as to the nature of this sudden and mysterious plague requires understanding the nature and effects of the virus itself.
In other words, the entire book is like playing in GDT's sandbox of the scientifically weird and grotesque. It is a medical journal for Guillermo's vision of the ultimate vampire.
Talk about Gross Anatomy.
But let's not forget Mr. Hogan's contributions. A master mystery writer (PRINCE OF THIEVES), Hogan's sense of pacing and suspense compliments Guillermo's sense of fantasy and horror perfectly - although from what Guillermo has said, it appears Chuck has a prolific eye for the macabre as well. He had never written a horror novel until now, but you would never know it.
In addition to Ephraim, there is a large cast of characters to this story, ranging from the heroic to the evil to the infected. Particularly ingenious is the character of Vasiliy Fet, a tough pest control expert that lends his expertise to Eph. It turns out that rats aren't all that different from vampires - and Fet uses that to his advantage.
Another strong character is the enigmatic Abraham Setrakian. A former professor, and current pawnbroker - his ties to the vampire threat not only go back to the WWII Holocaust Death Camps, but also to his childhood. He may be the best chance mankind has of surviving - too bad he's on heart medication.
I won't spoil anything about the vampires for you - that's the best part of the book - but I will say that they bare a striking similarity to the Reapers in BLADE 2. I know Guillermo said that he wasn't able to fully realize the Reapers the way he wanted to in that film, so perhaps this is finally his perfect vision of a vampire: grotesque, horrible, thirsty and a perfect evolutionary predator.
The wonderful part about THE STRAIN is that the novel is the perfect medium for bringing GDT's vampires to life. You understand them inside and out (literally), but also you'll get uncomfortable access to the thoughts and fears of those who are infected...or are being infected.
And that's stuff you'll never get from a movie, so consider it the ultimate bonus feature.
on June 22, 2009
"The Strain" starts off with a nice hook that pulls you into the story quickly. Unfortunately, it soon bogs down into a pretty standard mishmash of horror/crisis story cliches, including the main character with the failed marriage (cuz he's just so damn dedicated to his job), incompetent bureaucrats, etc., etc., etc.
As far as reinventing the vampire genre, as the jacket blurbs claim it does, not so much. They give a virus/parasite (it's a little confusing as to which, actually, since the characters refer to a virus but there are also visible "blood worms" swimming in the blood of the infected, which seems more like a parasite)as the cause, which is different than the traditional vampire, but certainly has been done before. Probably the most interesting plot development, which is that there are factions within the vampire ranks with differing views about how to interact with humanity, is barely dealt with (probably to be explored in future volumes), but at any rate is certainly not new.
I don't mind tinkering with the vampire mythology (especially since there are a number of myths anyway, so there are always some ground rules to set in a vampire story), but "The Strain" seems to have some consistency issues. For example, vampirism has a biological cause, but the infected are unable to cross running water without assistance from living humans. Why? The sleeping in earth myth is attributed to a sort of nesting instinct that the vampires have, rather than to a true need...however, the Master carts a giant coffinful of Romanian soil around the globe with him and takes some risks to recover the coffin when it's threatened (also, one of the human characters refers to needing to purify the earth so the Master can't use the coffin anymore). Since other vampires in the story seem to function just fine without access to dirt, this seems like a lot of trouble to go to for what is essentially comfort. The infected look normal in the early stages, but can be detected by looking at their reflection in a mirror (but only if it is silver-backed, because silver "always reveals the truth")...why is that again? If it's a virus?
But probably the worst parts of the book, for me, were the parts that just seemed kinda cheezy. For example, a WWII concentration camp survivor (presumably at least in his 80's, since he was an adult in Treblinka) running around decapitating vampires with a single stroke of his silver rapier. Did I mention that he has a heart condition and at one point had every bone in both hands crushed by a vampire? Seems pretty spry, don't he? Not to mention the whole, "my sword sings of silver" battlecry.
I also thought the CDC doctors made the leap from "this virus/parasite is changing people into monsters" to "therefore we must bloodthirstily exterminate the infected" a little too quickly, without even a brief side trip to "is there some way to confine these people and try to develop a treatment?" I could maybe see jumping over that if the main characters were military or law enforcement, but doctors? Doctors usually want to try to treat diseases.
Finally, the story feels like it is being padded out to make it a trilogy when it doesn't need to be. Everything covered in the first volume could have easily been compressed into 100 pages or so without losing anything essential (or even particularly interesting).
- Setrakian (about to face off against the Big Bad): "We split up."
- Fet: "Are you kidding? Never split up. That's the first rule. I've seen too many movies to ever go out that way."
I dig the horror genre so much, but I can't deny that there's a lot of trashy stuff out there. Vampires, in particular, have been featured so often in literature that, in my brain, these books have begun to bleed together. It's hard to meet the standards set by Bram Stoker, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, P.N. Elrod, and Brian Lumley. Nowadays it takes an exceptional vampire novel to knock me out of my state of Yeah, whatever-ness. Then along comes filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, obviously evilly bent on conquering all forms of entertainment media and now branching out into horror literature. He and his collaborator, award-winning author Chuck Hogan, have brought it with THE STRAIN, brought the chills, that sense of "Oh, crippitycrap!" and the big-time storytelling. THE STRAIN is the first of three novels, and it grabs the readers by the nape and drags them to some really dark, creepy corners.
It starts with a just landed Boeing 777 taxi-ing on the JFK tarmac but then abruptly coming to a stop. Sensors in JFK's control tower indicate that the airplane, Flight 753, has incurred gross mechanical failure. The window shades on the plane have all been pulled down. And closer inspection reveals that the onboard crew and passengers are dead. Epidemiologist Ephraim (Eph) Goodweather, head of a rapid-response team for the CDC in New York, is called in to determine the presence of a biological threat. What he and his Canary team stumble upon is incomprehensible and very disturbing. Corpses which refuse to decompose, weird biological residue splattered all over the airplane cabin, an enormous black earth-filled cabinet which mysteriously vanishes... and four survivors, diagnosed and then, against Goodweather's wishes, unleashed into Manhattan. That is how it starts, how the plague of the Strigoi - the Old World name for vampire - comes to consume New York.
THE STRAIN spins a shivery, old-fashioned, post-apocalyptic horror story, one that should keep you up well into the night. Even as Manhattan goes to hell, as the undead rise and take a bite out of the Big Apple, I can't help but be stoked. I know that this is only the start of an amazing epic trilogy, and by the trilogy's end del Toro has promised to "rephrase vampirism in a completely fresh way." (I'm not entirely sure what that means, but, dammit, I'm on board!) There's a sense of dread and foreshadowing from the very start, and the authors do well with building up the tension. There's an unsettling passage early on centering around a predicted solar eclipse, this event coinciding with the horrific doings in Flight 753. The best of books allows for character growth and the development of personal story arcs, and del Toro and Hogan know this. The book's emotional core revolves around Eph's relationship with his 11-year-old son Zach, and these two are in for some harrowing, heartbreaking times.
Another key character is the old professor Abraham Setrakian, whose Spanish Harlem pawnshop stores a secret arsenal prepared against the Strigoi (the prof actually introduces this term). Setrakian is an interesting cat, wise and brandishing a silver sword and wielding a battle cry: "My sword sings of silver!" (which is very cool). He's just a bit crazy, a mangled survivor of the Holocaust and harboring his own share of secrets. There are flashback chapters dedicated to his time as a prisoner in a German extermination camp and his first face-to-face confrontation with supernatural evil. For decades Setrakian has pursued this nightmarish thing, and now the day he's been dreading and waiting for has come. I like this old vampire slayer so much that I don't even mind that he smacks a bit of Prof. Van Helsing.
My favorite character, though, is Vasiliy Fet, the big pest control exterminator. Read the book and see what I mean.
I don't know how the workload was parceled out, how much of it from del Toro and how much of it, Chuck Hogan. Part of why del Toro chose to collaborate with Hogan is brought to light in del Toro's interview with Wired magazine: "I'm not good at forensic novels. I'm not good at HazMat language and that CSI-style precision. When [Bram] Stoker wrote Dracula, it was very modern, a CSI sort of novel. I wanted to give THE STRAIN a procedural feel, where everything seems real." We all know del Toro's feverish imagination and his credentials, his directing of Cronos and Blade II (New Line Platinum Series) (there's that vampire connection), and Pan's Labyrinth. But fewer people might be aware that Chuck Hogan wrote the very good The Blood Artists: A Novel, which tells of another out-of-control epidemic, albeit a more conventional one. Hogan is credited with injecting the medical/scientific content, which adds another layer of realism. Much of the story is chronicled from Eph and his colleagues' perspectives, so this horror book does have that procedural feel to it - so, mission accomplished, for del Toro. It makes for a fascinating read, how these doctors and scientists break down the vampire genus in technical terms. This, however, doesn't take away from the atmospheric tone, the creeping horror and the occasional moments of the grotesque. The Strigoi have been around for a very, very long time, and they are everywhere. The following novels in the series will involve an all-out war between the ancient vampires, with humanity as an afterthought. To quote Setrakian: "It will take this thing less than one week to finish off all of Manhattan, and fewer than three months to overtake the country. In six months - the world." Oboy, I can't wait.
SPOILER in this next paragraph.
This being the first of three, I'm not surprised it ends on a troubling note. I'd like to end this in the same spirit, with one nitpick. There is a sequence near the end in which Eph and his tiny ragtag crew of vampire hunters have finally cornered the Big Bad and is about to apply a whuppin' of the permanent sort. What I don't buy into is that in the midst of that, when one in his group suffers an ailment, Eph instantly leaves off putting the finishing touch on the Big Bad to tend to his fallen comrade. The authors obviously mean to illustrate Eph's humanity, but, still, here's the grim apocalypse about to go down, dude, if you don't kill off the Big Bad... I can't remember Spock's famous quote word for word, but it's something about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few...
on January 29, 2012
I gave this one star to get your attention and to offset all the 4/5 star ratings which this book absolutely does not deserve. This is a Vampire B movie book. All the cliches, cardboard one dimensional characters, inconsistencies and so forth hold court in this book. It's a not so subtle rewrite of the Van Helsing vampire myth - complete with a Van Helsing style character. It's entertaining but you won't miss much by passing on this book.
The writing is average at best. Somewhat surprising given the authors. Here are some examples:
CDC scientists are investigating a potentially infected plane. They suspect some sort of airborne virus or poisonous gas. Hazmat suits are in full effect. Then during the latter part of the investigation they find a suspicious "box" on the plane. So they just open it. Just like that, without Hazmat suits on.
In an exchange a character is referred to as Vasiliy. Vasiliy said this, Vasiliy said that. Then all of sudden Fet said this, Fet said that. Who is Fet? I went back looked for a character named Fet. Lo and behold it's Vasiliy's last name. Why would you change the name of the character in the middle of a scene to his last name?
A key character, Mr. Eldritch - a finance genius who manipulates global markets - colludes with the head vampire. They meet and the vampire threatens to undo their deal. The head vampire has all the leverage here - he's all powerful, nearly invincible and though Mr. Eldritch is rich he is physically weak and has no real leverage to enforce the bargain they have made. It doesn't make sense, Eldritch has made his money based on the whole concept of leverage. These sorts of guys don't make a move until they know they are going to win. We're lead to believe that Eldritch has to pay the price of dancing with the devil. But then he's spared. No explanation. Huh?
During one harrowing part of the book as vampires are sprouting all over the place. The main character Dr. Goodweather rushes home to tell his ex-wife and son to escape. Yet before he says a word he starts apologizing for their broken up marriage. Hello? You've just been chased by vampires, the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket and you have to pause to apologize? The book is like this throughout.
In another scene, a minor character jumps into a taxi and the taxi is besieged by vampires. The cab driver tells the guy to pay first before leaving. The character yells at the non-english speaking cabbie to go. He doesn't move the car. As far as I know tax cab drivers are pretty tuned in to dangerous situations. If a cab driver (english or no) sees a dicey situation he goes. Simple as that.
Another fine example. Deep at the end of the book our "heroes" are looking for the main vampire lair, staking out vampires in the early dawn. They see a bedraggled shuffling woman. So what does our main hero Dr. Goodweather say? "Homeless person." Yep, hunting for vampires, city is full of vampires, he just escaped a bunch of vampires and he sees a homeless person.
The last half of the book is basically a bunch of people getting killed by vampires. This whole book could be boiled down to maybe 100 pages. Way too much filler and very predictable...
on October 9, 2009
". . . her clothes and skin could not have been dirtier if she had been sleeping in real dirt."
". . . and Mark hung in there like a bright white star of effulgent pain."
". . . (into the microphone) where did we say we what?"
"She had that curious rapacity of the newly turned vampire that Eph had come to recognize."
"She could tell by the look on his face that he was troubled by the look on her face."
All of this damn fine writing, and so much more, is waiting for you in this book. Forget about the plot blunders and wacky science based, supernatural, virus, parasite, sun kills, no it doesn't stuff. Enjoy the writing. Don't worry that they never ever even try to explain how the heck 200 people died all at once in a plane and pulled down every shade. Sit back and revel in the antics exploits of Fet and Eph! Those two crazy vampire thingy slayers. And old Abe! That is some kick butt 80+ year old arthritic, gnarly hands kind of guy. Who could have any "anti-Eph" (really, from the book) feelings left in them. Well we meet one vampire who does!
And what a crazy plan the Master has! His minions are going to turn every man woman and child into a parasitic virus filled brainless blood sucker. Every one! But, what about food boss when we is all turned? Who do we turn to then?
And who can't understand why a virus can't cross running water? Or that it can read minds when it gets really old? Or that is crawls around like a bug? Or that is poops while eating? Or that it can poop without internal organs? Or that it moves faster than sight? And is stronger than strong? But can get cut by the dynamic duo of Fet and Eph?
But back to the main plot: Master vampire comes to the new world to declare war on his old buddies who are hiding in an asbestos mine (no kidding) in Pennsylvania packed with humans for the winter? Oh, they have no use for "exterior physicality" but they do have to eat. Master vampire wants whole world to himself after Master vampire's vampires have killed all people. Master vampire needs to rethink his plan.
As a potential reader, I'm writing my review without telling you any of the details of the plot, as I think the more you know about the story from the onset,the less impact it will have on you once you start reading it. As such, this review will be totally based on my opinion of it.
For me, reading The Strain, the first book in a trilogy, is the book equivalent of a person with a split personality. When I first started reading The Strain, and throughout its first half, I enjoyed it very much and wanted to spend as much time with it as possible. The book's personality during this period, was intriguing, mystifying, challenging, exciting and a bit of an enigma. The first half had my full attention and had me captivated while I was trying to figure what exactly happened and why. Further, the authors did a very good job in developing some interesting characters. However, from almost the start of the second through the end, the book's personality steadily deteriorated to predictable, repetitive, one-dimensional and, as a consequence, somewhat boring. Instead of The Strain's excitement level intensifying as I got further and further into it, I tended to increasingly find it to be a strain to finish. This book would have been better if it was 100 pages or so shorter, instead of the author's stretching it out to over 400 pages. Will I read the second book in the trilogy? Yes, I will but not with anywhere near the anticipation level I had throughout the first half of the book.
on July 30, 2009
Those looking for a good page-turning summer thriller need look no further. This is a good read, and a quick one. The characters are well-written, the pace is good and the amount of detail in the writing is good but not too much. There are some intriguing hints at what may be to come in the next two books.
BUT (there's always a but, isn't there?) the authors reached too far in trying to connect the supernatural with a natural cause. As a scientist, I just couldn't completely suspend my disbelief, the way in which the virus 'turns' the person into a vampire just doesn't make sense. And take the opening act, the airliner filled with dead people - how did one vampire drain the blood of more than 200 people in such a short amount of time? And if it's not supernatural, then how did the vampire knock out all electrical systems on the plane? I could go on. Salem's Lot does a far, far better job of creating a convincing world with vampires - mainly because King wisely chose not to mess with established vampire lore and kept them supernatural.
My minor gripe is that this is a very short book for a proposed trilogy. They could easily have written one book if the other two are of similar length. Del Toro's movie-making background is clearly evident in the way the book is written and it seems likely there will be a movie made eventually.
Update - looking back, after reading "The Fall", my review was far kinder than I intended. The characters are extremely cliched in this series from the "brilliant but flawed" protagonist and the "brilliant, good looking colleague who secretly loves him", this book just screams with Hollywood cliches.
In a market saturated with vampire fiction, this book does set itself apart. Instead of romance, we have gore; instead of sentiment, science. The book reads more like a traditional zombie story than a vampire story. We do have a coffin and some other standard conventions of the genre, but it is a fairly original take on vampirism. Originality does not necessarily equate to entertainment, however.
"The Strain" recounts four days in New York City, tracing an epidemic's origin and spread. We follow various characters charged with identifying and isolating the contagion as well as those being impacted by it. Unlike your standard pandemic, this disease does not kill. It turns humans into vampires - walking undead who hunger for blood. Instead of fangs, there is a long tongue-like proboscis with a stinger. Infection is by parasite which slowly transforms the host's biological makeup. Vampirism is treated much more from a medical and physiological standpoint than a mystical one.
The narrative really gets bogged down at several points. First is the governmental response to the outbreak. We read much more than necessary about the CDC and standard governmental bureaucracy. Second is the coincidental (?) timing of a solar eclipse. We are corrected that it is not an eclipse at all but an occultation and then given an amazing amount of detail about the event and many viewpoints of it. Third is the rat behavior. We are told a great deal about rats. This is relevant because it is a symptom of the vampire infestation and because it becomes a clichéd means of predicting the vampires' behavior. All three are relevant - just vastly overdone.
The authors tried WAY too hard to be ominous and establish a menacing atmosphere in the beginning. Everyone was seeing portents of evil and doom in everything. A little goes a long way, but too much is actually counterproductive.
The writing was generally good, in my opinion, but it suffered from a few things. First, there were a lot of metaphors, noticeably so. Some seemed to be reaching a bit and too clever by half. Second, there were a few thoughts that sought to be a little too profound and were tinged with melodrama (e.g., comparing consuming milk to blood, no technological device to see into a marriage, turning from a healer to a slayer, custody battle continuing, various meanings assigned to the eclipse by those with different motivations or backgrounds). It seemed sappy and clichéd. Many of the relationships seemed that way as well.
Additionally, the behavior of the vampires seemed inconsistent. We are told they mature over time, but all are presumably within four days age. Some behaved instinctively like animals while others seemed more conniving and clever (use of tools and ambush). The people's behavior suffered similarly. There are a couple groan-worthy actions by characters that just made no sense at all.
Finally, the story plays out to formula. There is nothing new or surprising as things unfold. People are infected, no one wants to accept the explanation, society buckles, heroes hunt, and a battle ensues. We are presented with scene after scene of the same occurrences knowing full well the result in advance. Though there is a level of suspense, it is tame.
In fairness, there is much more story to tell. One Master is featured in "The Strain", but we know that there are others. I would expect that much more back story will be revealed that will strengthen the story and add allure. But this also hints at one last problem. The authors seem to be trying to have it both ways - mystical and natural. On the one hand they demystify vampirism with biological explanation. On the other, they still occasionally try to play to our inherent desire for the occult and mystical (even mentioning voodoo in passing). They do not have to be mutually exclusive, but the presentation here does seem to be at odds. We are trying to have our cake and eat it too.
The book is okay, but just that. I could have done without the experience.
on May 18, 2014
I really liked the idea of this book - the vampire story reimagined as science fiction, with vampirism spread by a biological agent. A mysterious landing of a plane full of dead people, the CDC trying to figure out what's going on while it spreads... great! But then, the authors decide suddenly turn it into a traditional vampire story with a mysterious cabal of ancient vampires, one with a fairly stupid plot for world domination, and things go south fast. It's not helped by some of schlockiest writing seen since 1950s pulps.
WARNING - SPOILER AHEAD
And one giant logical gap - a great deal is made of how all the dead people on the plane seem so calm, like they all suddenly died without reacting. We find out that they've all been eaten and turned by the big bad ancient master vampire. And of course, we get about 5,694 scenes in the rest of the book of people shrieking in horror and pain as they are eaten by various vampires. So... what's the deal with the passengers? Shouldn't everyone have been screaming in horror, or did one vampire eat 200+ people in 3 seconds? Um...
Despite all this, the plot moves along pretty well (even if you can hear the whole mess creaking ridiculously at many points) but ultimately, this book can't decide what it's supposed to be, so it's either a really melodramatic vampires-as-a-plague story, or a really tired and very melodramatic ancient bloodsuckers of the dark story, or maybe just an unsatisfying mix of the two.
It'll probably make a good TV show though.
on January 26, 2010
Have you ever watched the movie 28 DAYS LATER? The basic plot is that a virus gets loose among the population of England. This virus turns people into rage-crazed zombies, whose blood, when given to a non-exposed person, turns them into a zombie within 30 seconds. Essentially, in the movie, we see the initial release of the virus, and then we cut to 28 days later and the aftermath of the spread of the virus.
THE STRAIN, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, follows this basic premise, only instead of zombies we get vampires. It's difficult to say if I liked this book or not. It has promise, and it has the monster version of vampires, so that's good right? Well yeah, kinda. THE STRAIN begins with a plane touching down and then going completely dark. One second the pilots are chatting with Air Traffic Control, and the next nobody can raise them on any channel. They call the CDC in to check out the situation. When they board the plane, everyone is dead (see where this is going?). The first gap in logic is here. All the main characters--the main one, Eph, is from the CDC--comment that all the people on the plane seem to have just taken death peacefully. Considering the fight people put up later in the novel when being attacked by vampires, it is never explained why these 200+ passengers just said, "Sweet, take my blood!"
The marketing on the book states that Del Toro and Hogan have reinvented the vampire. This is simply not true. A virus/parasite that creates vampires has been done (see I AM LEGEND and NECROSCOPE...kinda). Really, there is nothing new here, other than a thin attempt to link a biological agent to most of the general mythology of vampirism. There is no effort taken in this novel to explain why a silver-backed mirror can show the true nature of the vampire. There is no effort made to explain how this biological agent relates to the fact that vampires can't cross running water (much less a freaking ocean). The ending itself (which deals with a major vampire myth) is where the huge problem, and an intentional logic gap occurs--though I can't tell you it what it is without ruining the ending. Also, the logic the characters follow that goes from "this is a virus" to "let's behead everything!" happens in the span of a paragraph. One of our main characters is an old man with a heart condition, who had all of the bones in his hands crushed (and NEVER ATTENDED TO), yet he can easily grip the handle of a sword, and DECAPITATE vampires with one swing...like cutting through butter. Yeah. Like I said: thin. And really, these are just a few examples.
Now, it can be easy for many readers to ignore these things, and if you can, the story progression can be a fun, popcorn-novel ride. And to be fair, THE STRAIN is book 1 in a trilogy. For all I know, every single plot hole and logic flaw will be answered in later novels. But they should have been addressed in THIS novel. The writing isn't bad, and the action can be GREAT. In fact, there are some moments where I could absolutely visualize the scenes, and it creeped me out. But therein lies the crux of the situation: a lot of this novel feels like Del Toro work-shopping a screen-play to his potential viewers. This would normally be fine, as Del Toro is awesome. But this is a book, and it needs to have the feel of a book, not a screen-play. I wanted to like this novel SOOOOOOOO bad, but it just wouldn't let me.
Look, if you can turn your brain off, THE STRAIN is a fun novel that ends with nothing resolved. I would recommend that you wait till you can get it for a cheap as possible, or until future volumes come out. However, if you think too hard here (or, really, at all), you will punch holes through the plot and characters like they are tissue paper. The decision is yours. All this said, I am relieved that the vampires are monsters. This is a step back in the right direction.