Monday, June 08, 2009

The Strain – review

Authors: Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

First published: 2009

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: JFK International Airport, New York City:

Seated corpses faced them row after row after row. No evident trauma. No nosebleeds. No signs of poisoning. They were seated as any normal passengers would be, chairs in the full and upright position, still waiting for the fasten seatbelt sign too be turned off at the airport gate…

What took the lives of an airplane full of people?

Dr Ephraim Goodweather, Head of the Centre for Disease Control’s New York team, is racing to find out, but little does Eph know that the nightmare is only just beginning.

Abraham Setrakian is an elderly Armenian professor who understands the darkness that is descending. Many years ago, in the hellish barracks of the Treblinka extermination camp, he faced a horror more terrifying than death itself.

Before the next sundown Eph, Setrakian, and a motley collection of heroes must undertake the ultimate fight for survival. Should they fail, New York will be lost. And the rest of the world will follow…

The review: So, it is finally here – the del Toro vampire novel, first of a trilogy. The blurb sums up the story fairly well, we are talking a vampiric incursion of plague like proportions. Thus I do not intend to go into the story much more than where it touches the lore. As for the book itself, as a read, and I must admit I was worried. It was del Toro – I had built myself to this being released. I took the book to work with me, the day after it arrived and took an hour for lunch. The beauty of flexitime is that it didn’t matter when the hour morphed into an hour and a half. When I returned to my office a quarter of the book had been devoured.

The book is very readable, a good horror writing style and some interesting ideas. It is recognised, I guess, that in the vampire genre it is difficult to have totally original ideas – but it is what you do with the concepts, how you play with the lore that can be make or break. For the most part it is make but getting too referential almost made it break.

This is not the first (and won’t be the last) vampire plague type novel, the question always is why? If vampires have been around for centuries/millenium why is it only now (novel time) that the plague explodes exponentially – especially in a one ‘bite’ turns scenario. In I am Legend it was a new plague, a new disease. However, in something like They Thirst by Robert R. McCammon, where a vampiric plague overtakes LA, the answer was unsatisfactory. In this it was dealt with and the answer is embryonic but, given it is clear it will be explored in further volumes, momentarily satisfactory. It is an invasion – not of humanity but into other vampires’ territory by a creature who cares nothing for humanity.

Lore wise things are unusual. This is a viral infection carried by blood worms but definitely has a supernatural element to it. The virus changes the host to suit its needs and the blood worms will try to invade another host if the current one is destroyed. The genitalia of an infected male withers and falls away – thus putting paid to the sexy vampire myth. They defecate chemically whilst eating, being gluttonous in pursuit of blood. Their major organs are replaced. You notice I mentioned bite in inverted commas, the trachea becomes a long stinger like organ, projected from the double hinged mouth, with which they feed – I’ll come back to that.

Sunlight does destroy them. They have a hive mind connected to the master vampire and he is telepathic. They show up very hot on heat vision (rather than the standard cold). Silver is effective as a vampire killing device – in the form of a sword with which to decapitate them or silver tipped crossbow bolts with impact charges to remove the head. They cannot turn into bats, rats or wolves but tend to displace such creatures – which sense the evil I guess - and it is observation of this migration whilst vampiric attacks occured in a region that led to the metamorphosis myth. They do have to be invited (into a geographic location, not necessarily a home) and cannot cross moving water without human intervention (presumably only rivers and oceans as otherwise the sewer system running through New York would have proved a bugger).

Silver backed mirrors show them as a fast moving, almost vibrating. That kind of reminded me of Jacob’s Ladder and it is here where we fall over slightly. I could see moments that reminded me of Dracula - the plane itself was, for all the world, a little like the coming of the Demeter – a thought that struck me as I read those passages. The parasite/viral aspect was reminiscent of various works but definitely of Parasite Positive. Unfortunately it became a little too del Toro referential at one point. Clearly the stinger is reminiscent of the suction tentacle in the del Toro directed Blade 2. I actually quite liked this within the book, it seemed to take the concept and expand on it. However, when we got to the UV light bomb (and its blue light), which might or might not go off, it was clearly a Blade 2 reference too far and brought me up short as I was reading.

That said, it was one moment in a book I generally enjoyed reading. The question becomes, however, where will they take this over a trilogy and will it remain satisfying? It did seem that, after a good build up, the rush to the volume end confrontation was a little too hurried – especially as we know there are two more books to go. Time will tell whether the general good pace and quality can be maintained but I did like this as an action horror book. There was a nice use of daily life to expose the horror, some obligatory conspiracies and violent, hungry vampires that were the polar opposite of those romantic vampires plaguing the genre.7 out of 10.


Geoff J said...

To be fair the "plague" storyline in They Thirst is a deliberate part of the strategy of the Vampires to take over the city, not a 28 days style over night unleashed virus.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Geoff, this is true - and the point you make is good, it was no 28 days later accidental unleashment - but it was still quite unsatisfying, to me at least...

A creature that can live in plague proportions hides amongst us for millenium and then announces its presence in such a way... it doesn't quite gel for me...

This one seemed a little more, on the surface, credible... a creature, who thinks nothing of humanity, staging a ground zero to wage a supernatural invasion, knowing that its control over some of the richest and most powerful of humanity will enable it to cover its tracks.

8/6/09 12:31 PM

Derek Tatum said...

Do the vampires have floppy rubber ears?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

lol - not as described

Anthony Hogg said...

Hi Taliesin,

Speaking of They Thirst, have you covered it in your blog, yet?

I'd love to read your review.

As it happens, I've also read the book too and, well, found it somewhat unsatisfactory as well. Especially the deus ex machina employed at the end...

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi AV.

No, I haven't covered They Thirst as I think it only fair to review a book immediately after reading it - otherwise it won't be fresh enough in my mind to do it justice.

I have a similar process with films but, clearly, it is a lot easier to go back and re-watch a 80 minute flick than re-read a book.

one thing that did strike me, from memory, about They Thirst, is that the beginning seemed to be a lift from Alexis Tolstoy's "The Family of the Vourdalak" - though it has been a while so I am probably doing it a diservice.

Gabriel said...

Hello Andy

I was wondering with this novel whether it lets the reader empathize/sympathise with the heroes in this story? Mostly for a long time in this genre the protagonist has either been the monster (in a redemptive way) or tied closely to the 'monster' such as Sookie Stackhouse or Bella Swan.

Since the vampires have gone back to their horrific roots in this story, do we actually connect with the plight of the protagonist?

This is important to me because it really gauges how much I will enjoy the story. I read the first chapter on the book's website and it seemed okay, though it was just the obligitory flashback scene of said protag as a child.


Taliesin_ttlg said...

Gabriel, there are a few main characters some better drawn than others. Setrakian - whose flsahback you have read - is fairly much the Van Helsing character and is perhaps not massively drawn except as a conduit for vampire slaying and tghe lore surrounding them. Perhaps, as a holocaust survivor, there was a reliance on that for reader sympathy or, perhaps, the authors purposefully had him so obsessionally focused on the vampires because there was nothing else about him any more.

However Eph is drawn quite well... recently divorced and still fighting custody for his son, the book counterpoints the breakdown of his familial life with the breakdown of civilisation, making the two cut across and making understanding (rather than familial redemption) a metaphor for their struggle... in this volume at least. So in those terms yes we connect with his plight.

Gabriel said...

Okay thanks for the explanation, I'll add it to my to-read-pile. I am a fan Del Toro's work from Cronos, to Blade 2 and Pan's Labyrinth so I'm hoping to enjoy this novel.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

You'll have to let us know your thoughts once you've read it

MadeInScotland said...

Just started reading it...

Taliesin_ttlg said...

madeinscotland - let us know what you think

Zahir Blue said...

Well, I read it. My thoughts are that this is an extremely well-made thriller with what seems like a meticulously-worked out universe. I am eager to read the next two volumes (Del Toro has said the third will reveal the vampire's origins, calling it a "tragedy"). Frankly, rather than They Thirst this reminds me more of Salem's Lot as well as Brian Lumley's Wamphyri (minus the sexuality). One question that really intrigues me is what was the cause of the two factions falling out among Ancients?

While most of the characters seemed vivid enough to me, my biggest complaint is Nora. She remains a cypher, a little-too-obviously the totally driven companion to Eph. My hope is that she comes more "alive" in further volumes. Her sketchiness is in stark contrast to so many other characters.

Del Toro also spoke in interviews about how this story is about how evil brings out the evil in us. No matter how hideous and monstrous the vampires are, they at least are simply acting upon their natures. Even Serdu can be seen as a victim. The corrupt humans chilled me on a deeper level--literally traitors to the entire human race, not at all driven to commit such crimes but simply choosing to do so because they don't care.

Methinks I also saw echoes of the novel I Am Legend, especially with the return of Kelly and the whole "virus" idea.

For the record, most multiple POV novels imho fail to make the POVs really work, especially when it comes to the 'heroes.' Some characters in The Stand for example never come into focus, at least not for me. But this novel--like (for example) Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and Wouk's The Winds of War--doe succeed. All the more deserving of kudos.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Zahir - I can see where you are coming from with the idea that Nora is just a cipher as the focus was very much on Eph and, like you, I hope she is drawn out more.

I can see the I am Legend simile, obviously, and the whampyri - though whilst I do see the Salem's Lot I feel this was ultimately more on a grand scale. Re They Thirst it was more, to me, seeing how the motivation seemed to work more in this than within They Thirst - where I saw little of a motivation to be honest.

I can see the evil within aspect, and the corrupt humans but I think the evil within was even more chilling in the novel of Let the Right One In - where all the trully chilling stuff is within normal banal crime (rather than in the supernatural). But it is a nice way to go and a nice juxtaposition - almost Faustian in terms of the Strain, perhaps.

Glad you enjoyed it, however, and thanks for your thoughts. Like you I await the next parts with baited breath.