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Review: Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan hope to transform vampire lit with 'The Strain'

The renowned filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) pairs with crime writer Chuck Hogan for The Strain, the first of a planned trilogy that the authors promise will redefine "vampire lit." A tall order nowadays, when it seems every other book on the bestseller lists features the word "dead" in the title, but del Toro and Hogan will surely garner their share of attention for The Strain.

The novel starts with a bang, adapting its opening scene from the mothership, Bram Stoker's Dracula, which features a crewless ship bringing the eponymous count ashore in the shape of a wolf. In The Strain, the phantom vessel is Flight 753 from Berlin. The plane comes to a dead stop mid-runway — powerless and incommunicado — minutes after landing at JFK.

In the post-9/11 world of The Strain, this occurrence quickly mobilizes all and sundry. Enter Dr. Ephraim (Eph) Goodweather, lead scientist on the Centers for Disease Control's Canary Project, which investigates biological threats.

The idea of a modern ghost ship is an inspired one, and the creepiness ratchets up significantly as Eph and his colleagues board the plane to find all but four of its passengers dead of . . . of what? Various theories — poisoning, suffocation — are soon dismissed. The passengers show no signs of trauma save for thin slits at the base of the neck.

As the plot thickens, ever more ponderously, the bodies are transported to various city morgues from which they disappear once night falls. It is here that The Strain begins to strain the reader's credulity.

We are in zombie territory now — and The Strain seems more interested in reimagining zombie rather than vampire lit — but still, one expects more aid from the authors in that suspension of disbelief so key to losing one's self in this type of genre fiction.

Instead, pat characters appear on cue — the angry ex-wife, duplicitous co-workers, even a Mexican gang member — though all soon pale in comparison to the novel's Van Helsing, a retired professor of Slavic origin named Setrakian, who, from his own lair beneath a pawn shop in Spanish Harlem, hunts "the Master."

King of all vampires, the Master has crossed running waters — as vampires are unable to do, you'll recall — in the cargo hold of Flight 753. This he has done with the help of the novel's requisite bad billionaire, Eldritch Palmer.

This nod to age-old travel constraints affecting vampires notwithstanding, The Strain does not go very far at all in reimagining vampire lore. While bandying about terms like "the Ancients" and referring rather ominously to the Old World, the authors hew to the known. Sunshine? Check. Silver stakes to the heart? Check. Nonreflective mirrors? Yup. Crucifixes, garlic and holy water? Nah, don't bother.

The only contribution here to the vampire canon, as it were, is that of a "stinger," a fleshy appendage that "turned" vampires sprout, and which surges forward into the necks of their victims as they feed. But even this addition smacks more of zombies than vampires, with these dead-eyed, brainless tongue-waggers chasing after cars like rabid dogs. (Long before this, one has begun to pine for the cognizant, cunning vampires of Anne Rice.)

Structurally, the novel reads more like a screenplay. (No great surprise there.) Scenes are many and short, ending in sudden cuts and, all too often, dialogue such as, "Boss, you've got to come see this for yourself!"

A host of two-dimensional characters amble "onscreen" in Vampires Gone Wild vignettes that serve only to show what happens in jail, in suburbia, even, gasp, in tony Bronxville, as the bloodsuckers reign. It is interesting to imagine what del Toro, indisputably a visual genius, might make of all this on screen; here, though, on the page, the story is all too literally dead.

As the story flags, the authors opt for the grossout. There's gore aplenty, and an ending involving Dr. Goodweather's ex-wife that is, though bloodless, wholly tasteless as well.

The sequels to The Strain, which are slated to appear in 2010 and 2011, have much ground to make up if the trilogy as a whole is to fulfill the authors' promise of a new take on vampire legend, lore and lit.

James Reese's latest novel is "The Dracula Dossier." He lives in St. Petersburg.

The Strain

By Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan


Morrow, 416 pages, $26.99

Review: Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan hope to transform vampire lit with 'The Strain' 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 4:30am]
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