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Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Strain

From celebrated director Guillermo del Toro and co-author Chuck Hogan comes The Strain, a modern day take on the vampire myth that combines folklore with techno-realism and the theme of biological warfare in the form of arch vampire Sardu and his “strain” of rabid, body shock vampirism. The story setup is this: a plane recently landed at JFK draws concern when mysteriously, all communications from airport control meet with no answer and the plane is ominously powered down. When it is discovered the entire plane has inexplicably deceased, save a handful of survivors, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of Disease Control is dispatched to the scene to ascertain cause, which may be even more sinister than he realises. Dodgy protagonist name aside, it sounds like an engaging diversion, especially in the hands of the imaginative Del Toro.

After an atmospheric opening established in a fairytale from grandmother to grandson, Abraham Setrakian, the action cuts to New York and the mystery surrounding the grounded, darkened airplane, and the furore drawing from a potential danger to national security. Fairly frenetic stuff, but the authors make it so pedantic, informing us about technology and procedure that it undermines a sense of involvement in the action. Add to that some tedious interludes involving Eph Goodweather’s divorce and the unfortunate child caught in the middle, it becomes more of a slog than a fast paced exposition. For the first hundred pages I found myself becoming slowly disinterested with the frequent changes of viewpoint and passing introductions to minor characters who either transform later on, or who we never see again.

Eventually though, things start to pick up pace after the pandemic begins to transmogrify its victims into their new gruesome forms, feral and genuinely disgusting creatures similar to those in Del Toro’s Blade II. The perspective switches between the purveyors of the strain; a flamboyant rock star; a returning husband with a problem wife, and a high powered lawyer, all of them rote character clich├ęs who we don’t really care about. We also don’t care about Eph Goodweather, his former wife and her jock husband, or his distanced son. The characterisation is uninteresting, and whilst horrors may in some cases be more about the bloodletting and the imagery, which this inevitably is, it makes the filler material in between the action all the more irritating. In essence it trades out like any other Dracula caricature: old man Setrakian (Van Helsing) turns up, characters refuse to believe the unbelievable, they band off to defeat the head vampire and the legions of his undead.

By more closely translating this vampire story to the present day rather than just a vague approximation, Del Toro and Hogan explore a New York that has changed in the last decade, cleverly locating the vampire underground in the underground of the symbolic, ruined World Trade Centre, providing an eerie background to the book’s finale. The sense of time and space in particular is the most striking aspect of the book, not only with the closing showdown in the WTO underground, but also Setrakian’s experiences during the Holocaust in which he is stalked in the barracks of a concentration camp by Sardu. Those scenes are genuinely creepy and the most absorbing to read.

In the knowledge that The Strain is the first in a trilogy, it leaves the series in a good position to develop. Even though the authors’ opening effort is from time to time weakly written and characterised, there is invention enough and the tag of ’Guillermo del Toro’ to sustain interest in the next two volumes.

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