by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

The Strain


As a great admirer of Guillermo Del Toro’s work, I was naturally very excited to hear that besides the myriad of film projects he has in development, he was going to pen a novel. And I was even more delighted to get my mitts on a naughty proof copy and find out early if the man Mark Kermode dubbed the Orson Welles of Horror Movies cut it as a novelist.

The first thing to note about The Strain is that Del Toro has a co-writer for this venture into the literary world. When I initially heard about this I couldn’t help wondering whether this would be prove to be a case of an outline from the great man fleshed out by other hands. I feared a cynical attempt to cash-in on his reputation to sell another author’s work – the modern equivalent of the ‘collaborations’ of HP Lovecraft and August Derleth in which the latter expanded the single sentence ideas from HPL’s notebooks into full blown stories.

But I’m glad to say this doesn’t appear to be the case. Although I don’t have any details on who wrote what, The Strain simply reeks of Del Toro at every turn. Apparently the concept for the novel was originally a pitch for a fantasy/horror TV series with a police procedural flavour to Fox (who weren’t interested surprise fucking surprise). So when he decided to produce the Strain as a book, he enlisted Chuck Hogan, a writer of several well respected police procedural thrillers, who he felt would be able to achieve the correct air of believabilty to the material. I’ve not read of his previous books but his work being bigged up by the likes of Stephen King, Jeffrey Deaver and the grand old man of thrillers Ed McBain, he appears to be the perfect collaborator for the project. And on the strength of The Strain I’ll definitely checking out his own work.

The partnership works extremely well. As you’d expect from a novel by a gifted director, the novel is very cinematic – even down the structure of the book which is arranged in scenes rather than conventional chapters. And as you’d expect from a novel by Del Toro, The Strain builds up a fascinating mythology which spins traditional folklore in a novel and intriguing way. However with a gifted thriller author on board, it’s also a tautly written and beautifully paced book. Del Toro and Hogan work together seamlessly; The Strain never feels like a screenplay fleshed out with prose. The characters are well developed, likeable and memorable, and the plot plays out very smoothly, deftly gathering momentum and atmosphere.

Also it avoids the common pitfall of horror novels, namely descending into a string of scenes of carnage which leaves the tension and suspense the story’s built up flapping in the wind – I’ve lost of the number of novels that I’ve read over the years which nicely build up atmosphere and interesting characters only to lose steam in the final third with a predictable montage of mayhem.

Stephen King described his own vampire opus as “a game of literary racquet-ball: ‘Salem’s Lot was the ball and Dracula was the wall I was hitting it against”. And in some regards, The Strain is similar – it too is a tale of an Old World undead lord coming to unleash a plague of vampirism in the New World. The book’s opening with an airliner landing in New York with all hands on board dead has an obvious parallel with The Count’s arrival in England on the Demeter.

To an extent all vampire fiction is such a game; although vampires had been flapping around in fiction for quite some time before Dracula, it is Stoker’s work that really crystallised the concept of the vampire. Virtually all the rules of vampirism come from his novel bar the idea of sunlight destroying them which Nosferatu, itself a pirate adaption of Dracula, originated. The actual accounts of vampirism in Europe from history and folklore differed markedly from the usual rubrics of fictional bloodsuckers.

For example, the common concept is that they must be destroyed by a wooden stake through the heart, and that there is some magically or ritual reason for this. However if you peruse the actual legends you discover that there was no one generally agreed method of dispatching the undead, and in different region different approaches were traditional – burning, beheading, dismembering, leg breaking. The real commonality was to prevent the infected corpse from being physically able to being able to leave its grave – hence staking it was just a one method of pinning it down and why some places favoured severing the tendons in the arms and legs.

Similarly. other than bloodsucking, vampires in different places displayed wildly different behaviours. Did ye know that in Russian they had a fondness for ringing church bells and gnawed their own hands and feet in the grave? Or that a Germanic species of undead called neuntoters, spread disease and Romany vampires were partial to joyriding horses into exhaustion? See here for a quick look at some of the varieties of the vampire.

The vampire is such an enduring figure because of his adaptability. In legend and fiction, the vampire has symbolised and personified a wide range of social ills and contemporary fears. In literature, vampires have always thrived as they come with a host of in-built subtexts for perennial human concerns – sex, disease, intoxication and power. The seductive sensual fops presented by Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer aren’t a new take on the undead; rather they hark back to pre-Stoker works that were more romances than horror. Dracula itself can be read with subtexts about Victorian sexual politics and colonialism. And in King’s novel vampirism can be seen as a metaphor for the Reaganomics responsibly for killing small town America.

Now Del Toro is by his own admission something of a collector of vampire lore, and this does shine through in The Strain. On one level he’s returning to vampirism to one of its roots - fear of plague – but embroidered with his trademark imagination. This novel presents a new conception of the vampire, and has a great fun reinterpreting familiar existing lore with a new scientific model of vampirism. The Strain’s brand of vampirism owes more to Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid than the dusty gospel according to Stoker.

But Del Toro and Hogan aren’t merely moving vampirism into science fiction. When reinventing an old monster there’s always the danger of diminishing the creature’s archetypal power if you over explain it. Much like Brian Lumely’s Necroscope series, which also creates a new undead biology incidentally, The Strain retains the creature’s mythic status and stresses their insidious presence throughout all history. They represent vampires as monstrous forces of evil; ancient beings of diabolic horror rather than melancholic beautiful outsiders, and achieves a pleasing balance between the fresh science model and the more traditional mythological approach.

Del Toro has said “each book contains unique and surprising revelations about the history, physiology and lore of the vampiric race, tracing its roots all the way back to its Old Testament origins.” and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing further development of this new vampire mythos. Now this brings me to the book’s only real downside – it’s first book in a trilogy. To use an old cliché, The Strain is a real page-turner that cracks along at a terrific pace and never drops the ball. So to have to wait another year before the next installment is annoying in the best possible way.

Now the trilogy is a much abused fictional format. All too frequently, a brilliant first part spawns abominable sequels – for most trilogies the equation goes something like this… first part is fully formed and well thought-out, the second has only half the creativity of the first and the third appears to be based on a quarter of an idea. However considering it’s TV series genesis, and more importantly judging from the manner in which the novel structures it’s tale, I thin we can safely assume that Del Toro and Hogan are in the JK Rowling camp rather the George Lucas school i.e. the series has actually been properly planned out in reality rather than in Pant-on-Fire Land.

In terms of Del Toro’s oeuvre it is actually breaking new ground; tonally The Strain occupies the gap between the fantasy action of the Hellboy films and the archetypal poetry of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. And in the context of vampire fiction generally, The Strain is a fine addition to the canon and potentially a future classic. As it is but the opening installment of a series, its real greatness is hard to judge until the sequence is complete, but on it’s own it delivers everything a good horror thriller should with great panache and imagination. And it’s nice to have some truly evil vampires back on the prowl. Roll on the next outbreak…

Big thanks to Paul from Chinstroker Vs Punter who informed me of The Strain’s TV origins and collaboration details.

And massive thanks to the guilty parties who supplied me with a proof copy of this book to review.

For further details check out the rather swish promo site

JIM MOON, 29th May 2009