The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Vampocalypse Now (Review: The Strain trilogy; Guillermo del Toro/Chuck Hogan

The Strain/The Fall/The Night Eternal
Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Harper Collins 2009/2010/2011

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy, #1)The Fall (The Strain Trilogy, #2)The Night Eternal (The Strain Trilogy, #3)

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I'm finding myself knee-deep in post-apocalyptic scenarios. Every book I open assaults me with nuclear war, planetary collisions, universal collapses and of course the inevitable rise of the undead. No sooner do I finish Justin Cronin's excellent The Passage than the final instalment of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain trilogy lands in my lap. At first glance these two tales seem too close for comfort. Everything is normal. Vampires appear. Everything is broken. Plucky group of heroes fight back against the horde. Drama ensues. So, I decided to pit the two against each other and see how they fared.

However, in the course of writing the review I discovered that The Passage is itself merely the first part of a planned trilogy. So Del Toro and Hogan get to lead the day and I'll either return to The Passage individually in the near future or wait till 2014(!) to treat the trilogy collectively and give it a fair chance against The Strain. Either way, it's time for the director of Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth and, erm, Mimic to show what he can do with pen and paper.

The time is present day, the place New York City. A passenger flight has touched down at JFK airport but the ground crew has had no contact with the crew since landing. Enter Dr Ephraim 'Eph' Goodweather, one of the Centre for Disease Control's top field agents, and his assistant/lover Nora Martinez. On entering the plane they find their worst fears confirmed – the passengers and crew are dead, no signs of life. With the plane and bodies quarantined they begin their investigation only for things to take a turn for the worse immediately. A shadow is seen moving across the abandoned craft's wing. Strange deposits of soil are noticed. A heavy casket is mysteriously moved. People are dying. And where did the bodies of the dead passengers go?

Before we know it Eph and Nora are tangled up with Abraham Setrakian, a seemingly crazy old man who is convinced that the events unfolding can mean only one thing – the rise of the strigoi, ancient creatures we know as vampires. The unfortunate passengers were victims of the Master, a rogue vampire seeking nothing less than total dominion over the earth. As soon as the victims were turned they began to seek out the loved ones from their former lives, turning them into yet more slaves for the Master to control. As the infection multiplies the authorities find themselves overwhelmed.
Over the course of the trilogy – The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal – Del Toro and Hogan transform the world into something resembling Auschwitz on a massive scale. The Master and his strigoi soon have humanity, eliminating those with leadership qualities and sparing only the subservient. The future world is a chilling allegory for life under Nazi occupation during World War II. Only small pockets of survivors manage to muster any kind of resistance and among them is only Eph, Nora, Setrakian and their allies have any idea what is really happening. To further complicate matters Eph's ex-wife is taken by the Master and turned, now relentlessly seeking to claim Eph and his son Zack for herself at any cost.

Hiding amongst the vampires and the ruined society depicted in The Strain is a simple redemption story. Eph is no perfect hero, his shattered marriage, estranged son and battles with alcoholism all paying testament to this fact. The trilogy is his battle against not only the vampiric adversary but also his own nature. Does he have what it takes to fulfil his destiny and atone for his previous failings? This theme is played out with overtly religious overtones, although never to the point where it becomes irritating.

In fact, religion plays a major role in one of The Strain's most surprising assets – a truly original take on vampire origins and biology. Del Toro and Hogan use the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, by way of angelic bloodlust and heavenly punishment, to detail exactly what mankind is facing. The explanations for vampiric aversion to silver and moving water are somewhat strained but interesting nonetheless. The whole mythology he attaches to the vampire race adds depth to what may have otherwise been only a superficially interesting story.

If The Strain has one failing it is that Del Toro is no author. At times the book lapses into sub-airport fiction levels and the prose is reminiscent of high school writing classes. The characters' actions often left me scratching my head and large plot holes are glossed over. That Chuck Hogan couldn't compensate for this is a puzzle but it doesn’t detract too badly from the story itself.

In any case, this discrepancy is more than made up for by the fact that GDT is an amazing director. His gift for manipulating visual media shines through in the description of every scene. New York's fall and the devastation left behind are portrayed vividly, as are the strigoi themselves. At points it's like reading a movie and I can only hope that The Strain receives the big screen treatment it deserves. In the meantime, if you're a genre fan or simply love Del Toro's cinematic works then The Strain is definitely worth a week or two of your reading time.
To be continued...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal are available now. Thank you to the lovely Cannonball for tackling all three at once!

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