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Thursday, June 4, 2009

"The Strain" by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (Reviewed by Fábio Fernandes)

When I first heard that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan´s Labyrinth) was joining forces with Hammett-Award winning author Chuck Hogan to write a horror trilogy, no less, I admit I didn´t pay much attention. I´m not much of a fanboy. And also, you know, there´s absolutely no guarantee at all that an accomplished professional in one medium will be successul in another.

So good to know I was wrong.

When I picked up The Strain, the first book of The Strain Trilogy, it was all I could do to let it go. Even if it tells us a rather plain, simple story and you already know much of it from heart, you feel compelled to turn the pages and check for yourself what is really going on in there. (Then you remember that the apparent simplicity trick is the territory of masters like Stephen King, and you have a better understanding of it all.)

The first pages reminded me of the pilot episode of Fringe: a flight from Berlin to New York land at JFK International Airport with apparently no problem whatsoever - until the plane comes to a stop in the tarmac. Then all lights in the airship goes off. And everybody aboard die instantly.

Or do they?

Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather, an epidemiologist with the Canary Project, a rapid-response team with the CDC, is called to find out what happened - and he simply can´t. It´s as if they all had simply turned off. They died peacefully, eyes opened. At the same time, which should be impossible.

After a more thorough examination of the plane, however, they find four barely living passengers: a lawyer, a Marilyn-Manson-like singer, a middle-class engineer, and the pilot. They are taken to a hospital immediately, but the lawyer gets they out of there as soon as they start to get better - even though that´s just on the outside. Inside, they are suffering a major body change. They are turning into vampires.

As well as all the other dead passengers in the morgue - even the already autopsied ones. In the first night after the incident, all the bodies just disappear: they are trying to come back to their homes and families. What they don´t know is that they´re vectors of a disease - an fatal, uncurable disease which threatens all humankind.

The only person who has any clue to what´s going on is an old Armenian Jew, a retired professor-turned-pawnbroker shop owner, Abraham Setrakian. He has met this same thing before, in the extermination camp of Treblinka, in Poland. He is a survivor and he has been waiting all this time to put all his extensive knowledge to use. All he needs is to convince Eph and his partner Nora that he is not crazy...

So far, we all have seen this before, more than we would like to admit, right? The Strain is admittedly a vampire novel.

But The Strain isn´t your regular vampire novel. The Strain is no Twilight. Not at all.

Take away all the Gothic wrapping of almost all vampire stories (even stylish ones, like Underworld, which, even with all its excessive Matrix-like black leather glamour, is a rather entertaining one), and we have a fairly commonplace story of New Yorkers going about their businesses. Eph is going through a messy divorce and is fighting for the custody of his 11-year-old son Zack. Even the four survivors, though we don´t necessarily like all of them, are human beings (to a point, that is) and we can empathize with their personal daily affairs.

Until the going gets tough. Then things start turning into not a del Toro movie, as incredible as it may sound, but as a Tarantino film, or (to mention another very good Spanish filmmaker) an Alex de La Iglesia film: blood, gore, white plasma, violence, nail guns and vampire zombies with tentacled tongues. It can´t be much better than that, can it?

The Strain literally drinks in the same fountain of references that Bram Stoker drank to write Dracula. And that Richard Matheson to write I Am Legend (but please, please, forget the movie versions, especially the Will Smith one - I´m talking of the book); The Strain, at least this first volume, could almost be considered a sort of prequel to Matheson´s classic novel. But enough: more than that and I´ll be really giving very unwanted spoilers.

The Strain is a mix of Dracula with I Am Legend, with a slight tip of the hat even to Philip K. Dick (one of the villains´s name is Eldritch Palmer, for crying out loud - they had the balls to do it!) - and that´s just the first volume of the trilogy.

The literary debut of Guillermo del Toro exceeded my expectations. Not that I didn´t expected a good story from the creator of the sad and extremely beautiful Pan´s Labyrinth (one of my favorite movies in recent years). I just didn´t expect it to be that good. I devoured the book and I will be awaiting eagerly for the next two ones.


Robert said...

Great review Fabio! I can't wait to get started on this book :D

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Nice review. I enjoyed it but was considerably more troubled by some of the novels conceits and was a bit more lukewarm in my response. Enough so that I had a friend (one more interested than me in vampire fiction) read and review it a 2nd time.

Anyway, I still found Ephraim considerably less interesting than Abraham, the rat catcher, or the latino gang member which is perhaps a problem for a novel's protagonist.

The Reader said...

Hey Fabio

Very nice review, this book has kind of slipped under the radar of many people so its good to know about its quality.

Looking forward to reading it soon.


Calibandar said...

Yep, picking this up when I come back from the US.

Mihai A. said...

This is on my buying list and now I moved a bit uo the list. It sounds like a good book (as I expect to be). Very good review Fabio :)


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