A large jet touches down on JFK Airport in New York after a transatlantic flight and comes to a complete stop on the tarmac. No lights are seen. No communications are heard. No movement toward the terminals or signs of malfunction can be perceived. Thoughts from the authorities run the gamut from a major technical issue to a potential biological threat or a terrorist attack. But they’re all wrong. Across the city, in Spanish Harlem, an old pawnbroker sits down to a simple supper, turns on the old TV in his kitchen, stares at the screen as it shows the jet and realizes what he is seeing.
He’s watching the first moments of the end of the world.
Thus begins The Strain, the first book in the vampire-horror trilogy from author Chuck Hogan (of Prince of Thieves/The Town fame) and writer-director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies). Taking the name from its first book, “The Strain Trilogy” details the assault on humanity by a vampire known as The Master as it seeks to gain dominance over all of humanity. Standing in his way will be a desperate and disjointed group of allies, who are outnumbered, outgunned and unawares of the true threat until it’s all right on their faces.
Right off the bat, let me say that this isn’t the traditional vampire story because the vampires aren’t the traditional fanged monsters. Del Toro’s and Hogan’s vampires are much more akin to the “Reapers” from Del Toro’s Blade 2 than Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Stephanie Meyer’s glitter vamps. These vampires are pale, hairless, have a six-foot stinger in their mouths which they use to attack/drain blood from victims, develop a middle-finger claw to let them climb, have no ability to speak and they lose their sexual organs. Vampirism itself is transmitted not via blood, but through capillary worms in their blood – the vampires’ disease reduced to a bad case of parasitic invasion.
Of the three books, the first one (The Strain) is the best of the bunch. The way in which the tension and the dread are built up is quite striking. The set-up of the Master’s arrival, the cataclysmic solar eclipse that allows him the chance to unleash his powers upon the world, the coming together of the various disjointed heroes – the CDC’s Canary Team leaders, a NYC exterminator, a gang-banger from the streets, a pawn shop owner/expert on the occult/vampire slayer – these all feel quite cinematic and thrilling. It’s not impossible to see John Hurt as Abraham Setrakian, the old Jewish vampire slayer or to picture Ron Perlman as the tall and imposing rat catcher Vasiliy Fet.
This cinematic penchant grows throughout the series’ two other books, The Fall and The Night Eternal. The Fall depicts the civil war between the Master and the other vampire lords (a group of six referred to as “the Ancients”) for control of the planet as governments find themselves incapable of stopping the growing vampire menace. The Night Eternal, meanwhile, deals with the aftermath of civilization’s fall and the last gasp for turning back the Master’s ultimate triumph. Into this fight step Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, Dr. Nora Martinez, Augustin Elizalde, Fet and Setrakian to oppose the Master and his minions. But as they fight back, they find themselves more isolated, more desperate and more alone. The world and everyone in it slowly consumed and turning against them.
It is fun reading as Hogan and Del Toro take the old vampire story stand-byes and play with them. The vampire slayer/lore master is an old man with broken hands, filled with regret and memories of encountering the Master in the Nazi concentration camps and throughout the worst parts of his life. The big exterminator plays on the role of the great hunter, but he’s someone who isn’t accustomed to such lofty expectations by anyone. Likewise the gang-banger is someone more accustomed to violence for its own sake and yet he is called to be a nobler being; a protector. Most of all, the books focus on Ephraim Goodweather, the shining knight of legend (in traditional tales) who is often late to every aspect of his life, can’t protect those he loves and yet retains his good heart. It is his ultimate destiny to be pitted against the Master for the fate of humanity.
As the books progress, you do get a sense of futility – of how impossible the odds seem to be stacked and how unlikely it is that the heroes can overturn this assault on humanity. As law and order fade, the Master’s minions rise to take over the world and turn all those who battle against them into enemies of the new order. To make things worse, the vampire disease makes those turned desperate to make their loved ones – people they share emotional or genealogical bonds – into vampires. This raises the pressure on the heroes as they struggle to save their own friends and families before the very love that they share is co-opted by the darkness of the vampires’ calling.
And it is this sense of negativity that may turn some readers off. Particularly in The Night Eternal, where it feels as if everyone is just on the verge of giving up, readers can be turned off by all the moping and all the “woe is me” attitude that the characters take. Don’t get me wrong: it’s natural to expect characters to turn inward and desperate as their situations grow dire and they lose friends and loved ones. But the earlier horror-adventure tone of The Strain turns very nihilistic towards the end of the series. It can be quite difficult if you’re just expecting a horror story or an adventure to keep reading and reading about character’s moping around in their distress. It’s not enough to keep me from recommending it, but it is there.
Likewise, the final revelation of the vampires’ origin could be a detraction from some. I’m not saying what it is, but let’s just say it involves certain religious topics that some readers may not feel comfortable in reading. Again, this shouldn’t keep you from reading the series, but I’d hate to not touch upon it.
Whether you like horror stories or not, you should give “The Strain Trilogy” a chance. Del Toro’s cinematic eyes coupled with Hogan’s prose give you a great story about the end of the world and the fight afterwards. Yes, the story gets dark. Yes, it is tough to read at times. But overall, this is a wonderful series that should cleanse the palates of horror/science-fiction enthusiasts of the Twilight craze. Vampires got their fangs back by, well, not getting their fangs back. So if you see in the news how a plane has landed at your airport, but no one has come out, do yourself a favor: go stock up on silver. And make friends with the kindly old man in the corner store. He may know a thing or two.