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The New, Improved Undead

By (September 1, 2009) One Comment

The Strain

By Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
William Morrow & Company, 2009

The Strain is an imperfect vampire book released with perfect timing. Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy 2 and co-author of The Strain) is riding a wave of popularity (Pan’s Labyrinth was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 3), and he’s currently directing the new movie of The Hobbit. Vampires are also all the rage, with Twilight’s popularity building from the film adaptation’s release and countless other young adult blood sucker books flying off the selves.

And while I’d love to write a glowing review of del Toro’s first foray into literature with co-author Chuck Hogan, there are a few things holding me back. This is not to say that I hated the book – I thought it was a good, fun read. But I’m torn: do the good parts outweigh the bad ones? Is the book piled high at your local Barnes & Borders because of its intrinsic merits, or because one of its co-authors could get a toilet paper commercial green-lit for a 200 million budget?


The Strain is a modern vampire novel (the first in a trilogy) that takes place in New York City. We spend most of the book following a handful of main characters who are trying to stop the spread of a vampiric infection, all while trying to hunt down the head vampire who is spreading the plague.

I am always fascinated by books that have two authors, because I like to imagine the writing process. Did they take turns, each writing four pages at a time and then mailing those pages to the other? Did they sit down at the local café and write it together? Or did they divvy up the scenes after the whole thing had been mapped out and then work independently? Or, in the case of most celebrity tell-alls, did one of them write the whole damn thing and the other one’s name got slapped on the cover to sell more copies? There are so many possibilities, and all of these scenarios make reading a two-authored book a bit like a scavenger hunt. I read them and try to find evidence as to who wrote what. As I read The Strain I found myself crediting del Toro with the really well written creepy bits, and hoping that Hogan was the one to blame for the awkwardly-worded bits with clichés. I really love del Toro’s films, and in order to keep liking this series I needed to deny that he was the one making all of the mistakes. It is much easier for me to blame the bad stuff on this guy Hogan, a writer who means nothing to me. After all, del Tore is credited with having written the screenplays for his movies, and even hinting that there might be flaws in those movies … well, it’s a heresy too far for this reviewer.

So what is the bad stuff? First, there are some very awkwardly worded phrases and poorly described scenarios scattered throughout the book. Now I am certainly not one to focus entirely on the mechanics of a novel, and like so many college graduates, I am in no position to criticize other people’s grammar. But when a sentence is distracting, it interrupts the novel’s mood (and the more mood counts in the novel, the worse this is). And though horror has a long relationship with humor (see Dead Alive and Return of the Living Dead, or Peter O’Toole’s performance in Phantoms, or any of those hilarious Saw movies), the last thing you want to do while being terrified by a book is to burst out laughing at an inappropriate simile. An example: “The other two crawled up and around him now, their hands like crabs, touching him, exploring him.” This is during a scene where a world famous shock-rocker (a character fashioned after Marilyn Manson) has brought a harem of women back to his palatial apartment to have his way with them. He is supposedly very sexy, quite the ladies man. This scene should be very sensual and powerful, but it is interrupted by describing the approaching women’s hands as crabs. What does it mean to have hands move like crabs? Are they bright red, with pincers? Do they only move sideways? I’m pretty sure the authors didn’t want me wondering such things in the middle of a torrid love scene. Also: that the mention of crabs in a bedroom setting can spawn a very different meaning, involving a different sort of blood-sucking pest. If this were the only regrettable turn of phrase in the book, maybe we could stoically endure it, but the rest of the book is infested with them.

The other major problem with this book is the fact that nearly all of the characters are terribly clichéd. The best (or worst?) example of this is the main character, Ephraim, or Eph for short. Eph works for the Center for Disease Control. He has an 11 year-old son who he sees only on weekends because he and his wife have divorced. She still loves Eph, but he was married to his job and not her. Instead she’s married a boring yet reliable retail manager.

Sound familiar? This has certainly been done before and is a poor substitute for actual character development. While this situation does build sympathy for Eph, the only reason it works is because we’ve seen it so many times before. The very first introduction we have to Eph is by his familial problems, rather than his work at the CDC:

The game system was new, another toy purchased with Zach in mind. Just as his grandmother used to juice the inside of an orange half, so did Eph try to squeeze every last bit of fun and goodness out of their limited time together. His only son was his life, was his air and water and food, and he had to load up on him when he could, because sometimes a week could pass with only a phone call or two, and it was like going a week without seeing the sun.

So I get it, Eph really loves and misses his son. After all, his son is his sun, and water and air and their time together is like an orange half. I’d like to think that sympathy for Eph, and the rest of the characters in The Strain could have been developed in a better way.

Despite these distracting weaknesses, The Strain does have a lot going for it. One of the best parts of this book is the opening sequence.

The book’s first modern scene is at JFK airport in New York. A plane has just landed and all of the instruments go off as it taxis to the gate. At first it seems there’s been an electrical failure, but as an airport employee makes a closer inspection, we start to see that this is no ordinary instrument malfunction:

Following the circular splash of her beam, she could see that the fuselage was still slick and pearly from its descent, smelling like spring rain. She shined her light on the long row of windows. Every interior shade was pulled down. That was strange. She was spooked now. Majorly spooked. Dwarfed by a massive, $250 million, 150,000-ton flying machine, she had a fleeting yet palpable and cold sensation of standing in the presence of a dragonlike beast. A sleeping demon that was only pretending to be asleep, and actually capable, at any moment, of opening its eyes and its terrible mouth. An electrically psychic moment, a chill running through her with the force of a reverse orgasm, everything tightening, knotting up. Then she noticed that one of the shades was up now. The fine hairs went so prickly on the back of her neck, she put her hand there to console them, like soothing a jumpy pet.

This entire opening sequence is terrifying, plugging you directly into every character’s fears. It is very clear, very early, that something is not right with that plane and that the troubles are only just beginning here.

Chuck Hogan
  Another good part of The Strain is the elderly Holocaust survivor/ pawn broker/ vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian, the book’s go-to vampire expert, who’s been waiting his entire life to have another shot at killing one vampire in particular. Setrakian is great because he is the least predictable of all of the characters. We know some of his past, and how he got involved in vampire hunting, but in many ways his life before settling down in Harlem and opening a pawn shop is a mystery. He keeps us guessing, and that keeps the book’s plot – your basic rapid-infestation narrative – moving along.

The Strain very effectively embraces the older literary (and cinematic) conceptions of vampires while putting a newer, more zombie-like spin on them. In horror mythology, vampires and zombies are of course very different creatures (except for the whole ‘dead creatures feeding off the living’ business, that is), but this book takes elements from both of the monsters to create a hybrid terror.

The vampire element are archetypal enough to be comfortably predictable. Our collaborators’ vampires cannot be seen clearly in mirrors and can be killed by silver-tipped weapons. Their skin burns and sizzles in daylight (sorry girls – no sparkling). The head vampire, Sardu, travels in a coffin filled with dirt. Sardu brings that old European, aristocrat-vampire element into this book, much like Dracula or Count Orlock did. Setrakian knows of Sardu, encountered him while in a labor camp during the Holocaust, which adds both to Sardu’s mystique (his reputation precedes him, as it were) and Setrakian’s (Ahab-like, as it were) depth. One of the things I’ve always found creepiest about vampires is the recurrent idea that they’ve existed among humans forever, moving among us while they feed off us – Sardu is the representation of that in The Strain.

Zombies are generally portrayed as brainless (though they’d like to eat yours) flesh-eaters who move in hordes and stop at nothing to devour humans. The zombie infection generally spreads quickly, and it is easy to pick a zombie out of a crowd (they are the undead ones eating people). The Strain’s vampires reflect these zombie tendencies: their plague spreads very quickly (Manhattan, we’re told, will fall after one week of infection), and they spend the daytime hours all hunched together, becoming hungry for blood. A few of our characters have the misfortune of encountering these hives just after the sun has gone down:

Two of them stood close in front of the taxi now. A man and a woman, headlights brightening their waists. There were seven or eight of them in total, all around them, others coming out of the neighbors houses.

The image of suddenly being completely surrounded by these primal attackers is much more reminiscent of a zombie attack than it is of a vampire attack – this is The Strain’s hybrid approach at work.

The Strain also capitalizes on a quality that zombies and vampires share: both spread their contagion by biting you. The book stresses this and capitalizes on it to a new, horrifying degree. The infected in The Strain don’t just bite you; their vampire-stingers actually leap out of their mouths and lash out at you to get your blood. The first time that we see this, a man is attacked in the middle of Times Square:

Looming over him. Something undulating inside his mouth as he stared at Gus with empty, dark eyes… The man dropped to one knee, choking out this thing in his throat. Pinkish and hungry, it shot out at Gus with the greedy speed of a frog’s darting tongue.

This type of monster improv class usually ticks me off. Typically, I’m the first one who will speak out against monsters not playing by their own rules. It can ruin my day when zombies think or speak, or when vampires can go out in sunlight and not turn into a pile of smoking ashes, so I really had to examine how I could actually like the fact that The Strain treats these characteristics of monsters like cards in a game of draw poker (give away what you don’t want, but hang on to what you do). I think the reason I am happy with these changes is that they weren’t made simply in order to bite their thumbs at the history of horror, but rather to create the most terrifying monster for the book. The Strain is aware of the rich history of vampires and zombies, and is able to embrace this history, all while writing a new chapter in the collective lore. There’s a lot of good, careful imagining going on here, and we benefit from this balance by getting terrified in a delightfully new way.

Guillermo del Toro

So you can understand how I am torn about The Strain. I like it for all of its blood-sucking charms, but in order to do so, I’ve got to overlook some fairly major shortcomings in its mechanics. And I’ve got to do it all while somehow managing to avoid blaming Guillermo for anything.

The end of the book turns into an all-out battle of good versus evil. Because the book is just the first of a trilogy, you know that not all of the issues will be settled, and many questions will still remain unanswered. Because this book is a strong start to the story of Eph, Setrakian and Sardu, I plan on reading the following two books. I have no doubt Guillermo will get the hang of the mechanics (especially character development) and tell an even richer story next time – and who knows? Maybe that Hogan guy will chip in a little too.

Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.

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