The fact that The Strain was co-written by director Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan caught my attention. I have seen few of Del Toro’s films, but his first full-length work as a director and writer, Cronos, was a highly original take on the vampire myth. It’s not so much I remember the movie, as that images from it continue to pop into my mind, like bits of a not quite forgotten nightmare, some form of post-cinematic-stress-syndrome.
So, even though “vampire” is a genre done past death when I saw The Strain at $1.99 on Kindle, it seemed at least worth checking out the sample.
The story opens with a prologue and the words “Once upon a time…” These words are being spoken by a grandmother telling a “bubbeh meiser” or “grandmother’s tale” to her grandson. The setting as established quickly by details like the borscht being served in a wooden bowl. We’re in Poland before the Holocaust, “once upon a time” indeed.
Reader, I bought the book.
The novel quickly moves to the present. A plane is coming in for a landing. It doesn’t really matter when a plane is about to land whether you are in first class or the back of steerage, even those of us most at ease in the air, can’t help but feel a bit of anxiety. Unless we are in the cockpit, whatever is about to happen is both a matter of life and death, and beyond our control. The tension builds even if we already have a sense of where this is going.
Michael Crichton or Robin Cook might have come up with the concept – vampirism as a kind of virus, not a metaphor for a virus, but an actual physical transformation that could be quantified, medicalized, contained, possibly even cured, with a CDC-scientist as the hero who would investigate and maybe save us all. The vampires were reinvented in several ways and it would be a spoiler to name all them. They seem zombie-like at first, a mass army of the undead who only want to come home and feed off their “dear ones.” Later, we meet again the now elderly boy from the prologue. Soon enough he’s telling a young man about the enemy they are facing: “Take away the cape and fangs. The funny accent. Take away anything funny about it.” He might have also added anything sexual or romantic. No emo-vamps or sparkling here.
I loved that we were in a world like the one I know, where interests compete and skepticism and complacency slow reaction time while the “virus” spreads. I also loved that we were in New York, and not just the New York of Gossip Girl or Sex and the City that only includes certain parts of Manhattan and maybe a neighborhood or two in Brooklyn. This was a book set in my New York. The ex-wife and son of the CDC-hero live in Woodside, Queens – a neighborhood immediately adjacent to the one I grew up in. Other locations include parts of Brooklyn that aren’t hipsterized, East Harlem and even New Jersey.
Gradually, a conspiracy is revealed with corruption, interests and strings being pulled behind the scenes. Heroes emerge. As with most zombie stories and vampire novels going back to Dracula, a diverse band of fighters is born.
This was a great read, one of those books where I had to pace myself because I didn’t want to get to the end to soon, but I couldn’t stop. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end on the last page (or screen) of The Strain. It’s the first book in a trilogy. It ends not in completion of a mission, victory, or defeat, but rather in the middle. In order to find out what happens next you have to look at the sequel, the second of the three books, The Fall.
The Fall is not offered at $1.99 on Kindle, but at $7.59. You can buy all three at once for around that price, which you might find yourself doing because despite what I’m about to say chances are if you enjoy The Strain, you are going to want to read the complete trilogy. The problem is that the sequel isn’t very good. It’s more than simply the usual problem of the middle book needing to act as a bridge. The plot and action become more and more contrived. There are far too many close calls and victories in skirmishes. Despite their alleged strength and the difficulty of killing them, our intrepid team quickly become Buffy-grade vampire killers. We also lose a character who has been essential, and we never recover from that loss. We begin to move from the original science-oriented world to one where the supernatural takes precedence.
Then it gets much worse. The writing and pacing in the final installment, The Night Eternal is even sloppier than in The Fall. There’s also a complete about face on the science versus supernatural issue, which felt to this reader like a betrayal. The ending and means of ending the plague is not in any way logical and left me feeling, “Huh? What just happened?”
Beyond all of that even my previous enjoyment of the New York-neighborhood shout-out was ruined. My own block is mentioned toward the very end. While it’s still located near Columbia University, instead of a six-building private housing complex across the street from an even larger public housing project, in the universe of The Night Eternal, it’s the location of a sewer treatment plant which given that it’s several blocks from the river makes no sense at all. In fact, going back to the the first book, the mentioning of neighborhoods I love had always been about simple tags place names one would see on a map, with no sense of what the places are like, not even a simple phrase like “passing one of the many Irish pubs” or “beneath the elevated with the number seven train thundering above….” It felt like another cheat.
So what exactly is a reader to do? Read The Strain because it’s good, but never find out what happens next? Or invest in a trilogy that will leave you unsatisfied?
There is also a planned television series based on the series. Despite what I know, chances are I’ll watch, hoping they change the ending, and winding up bitterly disappointed when the finale makes the last episode of Lost look like it made sense.