BY NICO VREELAND
[Note: I wrote this review last fall, but I was out of the country, and evidently I never sent it in to HQ. So here it is, more than a little late. If nothing else, let it be a warning not to buy the next book in the Strain series, which comes out this September.]
William Morrow, 2009
Filed under: Thrillers
[SPOILER ALERT: This review contains a piece of information that you can find in the publisher’s description, but that the novel itself doesn’t reveal until nearly halfway though. If you want to read it fresh, skip this review and all others, and any descriptions of the book you might find. Don’t even Google “The Strain.” Just be warned: all that probably isn’t worth the effort.]
Guillermo del Toro is the famous director of Pan’s Labyrinth, among other movies. The style of this book feels appropriate coming from the mind of a director: it’s exhaustive and thorough, and contains a wealth of details about each character’s profession, personal life, and motivation.
For example, the opening sequence, in which a just-landed plane sits mysteriously powered-down and unresponsive on the tarmac, features sections from the points of view of an air traffic controller, a baggage handler, the captain of a fire truck, the head of the CDC’s “Canary” unit, and so on. Here’s an average sentence:
The maintenance crew was using an Arcair slice pack, an exothermic torch favored for disaster work not only because it was highly portable, but because it was also oxygen powered, using no hazardous secondary gases such as acetylene.
At first, this style succeeds in fleshing out the world and the events in it, but it quickly, quickly becomes boring. If this were a movie, somebody on the crew might need to know which slice pack the maintenance crew is using, or what the baggage handler is thinking as she drives up to the dead plane. But the audience does not need to know; even if they did, it would take seconds to communicate onscreen, instead of dozens of long pages.
Then there’s the big secret of what the book’s about: it’s about vampires. Del Toro and Hogan drag you through hundreds of pages of excruciating investigation, explanations of hemodialysis and human biology, and dozens of ancillary characters—all with their own little stories—just to reveal with a flourish the most cliched horror concept in existence. It’s disappointing, to say the least.
The confusing thing is that the authors treat the fact that this is a vampire book like a big plot twist, but it’s nearly impossible not to know that before you read it. At thestraintrilogy.com—yes, it will be a trilogy—the first two sentences of the introduction are: “They have always been here. Vampires.”
So if you put together what you know from the dust jacket and the first 50 pages, you figure out that the plot of this book will be simple: vampires attack, people defend. Once you know that, there are miserably few surprises left for you.
The only novelty that del Toro and Hogan bring to the table is their exhaustive research. An exterminator knows that “rodent urine shows up indigo blue under black light,” and we find out the capacity of the dead plane’s fuel tank. Obviously, they spent a lot of time finding these details, and they don’t want to skip out on a single one.
The downside of this is that they don’t prioritize the action or the drama of the novel over their precious details. For example, during one of the first vampire attacks, the CDC doc grabs a weapon to defend himself:
Eph searched around wildly for anything that would help him keep this guy away from him, finding only a trephine in a charger on a shelf. A trephine is a surgical instrument with a spinning cylindrical blade generally used for cutting open the human skull during autopsy.
That’s a bone saw. If you’re worried people won’t quite get it, you could specify “circular bone saw,” but that’s all we need, especially while someone’s being attacked by a monster. Giving that tedious explanation only takes the wind out of any tension the scene might have built: a dictionary definition doesn’t exactly go with wild searching.
The writing itself is pretty good for a thriller, except for when the authors reach for a poetic phrase and come up with something like, “Mark hung there like a bright white star of effulgent pain.” The dialogue is quite bad, and the characters, despite the effort spent on their backgrounds, are pretty two-dimensional.
The Strain’s big hook seems to be that it’s the anti-Twilight. The hype surrounding it focuses on the fact that these vampires are not nice, they’re mean. The problem is that they’re mean to an extent that they have no humanity—they’re monsters suffering from a disease, as the title implies. It’s difficult to pull drama out of a big mindless fight.
There’s talk that The Strain will be made into a TV show. That might fit better with the authors’ thought processes (assuming characters don’t run around wildly, explaining their bone saws and slice packs), but I have a feeling that won’t entirely alleviate the boredom.
From the novel version, there are two lessons to be learned. First, if you use a cliched monster villain like vampires, you have a lot of creative work to do to make it feel like you’re not cheating your readers. Second, an important talent for a storyteller is knowing which details to leave out.
In sum, with a lackluster “people fight vampires” plotline, and a ton of details weighing down the narrative, The Strain simply isn’t worth the time.
Similar books: for a CDC thriller, there’s Outbreak, by Michael Crichton; for a book that likewise treats its premise as a plot twist, there’s The City & The City, by China Mieville; and for vampires, there are thousands of other vampire novels.