Book/Author and Year Published: The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009)
Age/Genre: Paranormal Horror
Preferred Reading Environment: Somewhere with no people and lots of sunlight
Reading Accoutrements: Your favorite childhood snack
Content Notes: Death, Post-9/11 New York, WWII concentration camp scenes, alcoholism
We can’t go through October without reviewing a vampire novel!
I actually started reading The Strain last year, and even though I really liked the concept, I ended up putting it down for an extended amount of time. As I was putting together my October list, I decided it was time to return to it. It had been long enough that I knew I needed to start from the beginning, so I checked the audiobook from my library, thinking I could listen to at least the first part while working on other stuff. It worked out perfectly and I listened to the whole thing.
The Strain starts with a mysterious plane incident in New York City. This is post-9/11 New York, so when a plane lands, ceases communications, and goes dark, swift action and the highest precautions are taken. Hogan and del Toro show us the perspective of many people investigating the incident, primarily Ephraim Goodweather, a CDC employee in charge of a biohazard project meant to prevent the spread of epidemics.
Once precautions are taken, the plane is entered and it is discovered that almost everyone on the flight is dead. There are no signs of trauma or struggle, and all of the typical reasons are deemed improbable. In the following days, as Ephraim and his coworker Nora investigate, people go missing throughout the city, and increasingly weird occurrences start happening.
The Strain is the first book in The Strain Trilogy, and I am hooked enough to already have confirmed that the rest of the trilogy is available through my library’s audiobook app. The narration is done by Ron Perlman, who del Toro fans might be familiar with from Hellboy. I thoroughly enjoyed the narration, and there were a couple of sound effect touches that added some great ambiance without distracting from the story. The trilogy was adapted into a television series by FX, which I might have to check out once I’ve finished the books.
Since I’ve only read the first book, there are certain plot and character elements that I’m not ready to form opinions on, but there are a couple of aspects that I really enjoy so far:
The Vampires: The vampires in The Strain are introduced to us slowly. We see the change from the perspective of people experiencing it, and then from the view of onlookers. Since our main analysts of the condition are CDC employees, medical terms are used to describe the phenomenon plaguing New York City. It is often called a virus – hence the name of the novel. It is also described as an organism that consumes the host, taking over bodily functions until it can be transformed. Though being bitten does not result in immediate change, there is so far no antidote for the change, and within a day, the victim’s body has been overtaken, their personality gone.
We later learn that there are different stages of vampirical metamorphosis and also different traits amongst those changed by mature vampires and those changed by later generations. This leads to a lot of variety in interactions with vampires. At the end of the book, we learn a bit more about the oldest vampires, which sets up some intrigue for the rest of the series.
The Villains: The first villain we meet is not a vampire, but a human aiding the introduction of the vampire invasion into New York. Of course, the villain is a billionaire who wants to sacrifice the masses for his own benefit. Throughout the book though, there is more focus on the main vampire, known as The Master, and the human villain takes a backseat. I look forward to learning more about each of these characters later.
The Bureaucracy: At the beginning of the book, we learn about many precautions that have been taken to prevent biological and other terrorist attacks since 9/11. As the book progresses, it’s repeatedly shown that many of these measures are either useless or actively harmful in preventing the spread of the vampire strain. While the Powers-That-Be want to prevent panic, lack of awareness is one of New York’s greatest weaknesses. Throughout the course of the story, a few people encounter the strain and come together as a sort of vigilante team to prevent the spread. Meanwhile, Ephraim is pursued by authorities because he has broken CDC protocols in order to effectively investigate.
The other primary members of the team include Nora, Ephraim’s coworker and love interest, and Abraham Setrakian, a professor and pawnbroker who has previously encountered The Master. We actually met Setrakian in the prologue, as a young boy hearing the myth of the vampire who ends up being The Master from his grandmother. Later, we see his experience in WWII concentration camps through flashbacks. There are a couple of experiences that he alludes to but are not explored; I hope these are shown in greater detail in the sequels.
I love how Hogan and del Toro show us so many perspectives. It adds suspense in a few ways. First of all, it gives us knowledge that the primary characters do not always have. Secondly, it makes it impossible to know who will die, since we are often in the heads of people who end up changed. We also see things from the perspectives of the villains, which I think is almost always a great way to add some realism to a villain’s story arc and prevents them from becoming a caricature.
I also really enjoyed how much research seems to have gone into this book. There is a lot of medical terminology included, all of which is appropriately explained. There are also a lot of industry-specific facts. When we are in the heads of airline officials, we learn about airplanes and security protocols. When we’re following a pest control professional, we learn more about rats and extermination strategies than most people would ever want to know. There are also facts thrown in about solar occultations, human behavioral trends, and other scientific phenomena. This isn’t really a science fiction book, but it’s a science-heavy paranormal horror, which I found super engaging.
The Strain has some gory moments, as well as some really sad ones. I expect that the television series plays up the drama a lot. I don’t know whether I think the series will end on a hopeful note, but I’m excited to see where it goes.
What’s the last vampire novel you read?