A collaborative effort between film director Guillermo del Toro (known for films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy) and author Chuck Hogan, The Strain was originally conceived as a series for television; it is now the first in a trilogy of vampire novels.
The Strain has a relatively simple premise: a plane touches down in New York City, and all but four of the people on board are dead. Of course, given that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what happened. The Strain then proceeds to follow primarily the scientist Ephraim Goodweather, but also a multitude of characters who are caught in the path of the supernatural infection that begins to spread across New York City.
Vampires that are actually scary (thank goodness)
We all know that vampires have become incredibly romanticized in recent years, and I’m not going to go into a lengthy tirade on the subject. Suffice to say: it’s not too often that we get vampire fiction which features vampires that are actually scary, and so I find it immensely refreshing when we do. The Strain is one of those stories that goes for the all-out scary vampires, and it does it right. These are vicious, bloodsucking creatures that share a lot of similarities with traditional vampires; however, there are some interesting new twists as well. Del Toro and Hogan take the elements of vampire mythology we’ve seen countless times before and weave them into something fresh and re-contextualized for the modern world. This approach, the meshing of new and old elements into something all its own, works surprisingly well.
A scientific approach
While maintaining elements of traditional vampire mythology, The Strain takes a very scientific approach to its subject matter. It’s no mistake that the book’s primary protagonist is a scientist: every aspect of the vampires is dissected and analyzed from a scientific perspective. Instead of just magically infecting people by biting them, the vampires strike with a fleshy “stinger”; this stinger injects victims with parasitic worms that spread the infection. This is only one aspect of how these vampires function, however, and much of the book is devoted to unraveling the scientific rationale behind their anatomy. I’ve never seen vampires approached in this way, and I really enjoyed it; by explaining seemingly supernatural characteristics through science, these modern-day vampires feel credible in a way that most others don’t.
A well-rounded cast of characters
The Strain features a surprising number of viewpoint characters, and the book’s perspective jumps frequently between them. This can be jarring and sometimes frustrating as the frequent perspective shifts don’t feel completely necessary, but it’s not a major detriment to the book. With characters only being presented in short snippets, I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of characterization. Most of The Strain’s characters are complex and flawed, and one of my favorite aspects of the book was getting to see how they perceive each other differently. The Strain may not need as many point-of-view characters as it has, but for the most part, the relatively large cast works well.
Setting up the story
The Strain is not a stand-alone story; it is very clearly the first section of a larger arc. This works both for and against the book. On the one hand, most of the book is just setting up the conflict that is to come in the trilogy’s next two entries, The Fall and The Night Eternal. The vampires themselves don’t really start appearing until about halfway through the book; if you’re reading The Strain, you’re obviously reading it for the vampires, so it is worth noting that this aspect of the story doesn’t become prevalent until a couple hundred pages in. On the other hand, despite focusing on such extensive buildup, this book is not boring. Del Toro and Hogan ratchet up the tension for a long, long, long time, and so when the action finally lets loose in the second half of the book, it hits hard.
Why should you read this book?
The Strain isn’t without its flaws, but most of them are relatively minor. It’s an incredibly effective vampire novel, and while it focuses mainly on exposition and setting the stage for the next two books in the trilogy, the engaging cast of characters and high levels of tension still make it an engaging read. For fans of vampire fiction (vampire horror, that is), The Strain is definitely a book you’ll want to check out.