Since my friend Val is a big fan of the vampire, and frequently a bit heated about the current state of vampire fiction, I asked her if she’d like to review del Toro and Hogan’s The Strain as a counter-point to my own review. She did so. Thankfully she managed to trim her 8000+ words down to a more managable 1500 words. So check out the review below, as always comments are welcome! -Mike
It’s very hard, in my opinion, to write a truly great and well thought-out vampire book. Sure… you can write a book that has vampire characters in it but that’s a dime a dozen nowadays. I can name at least 10 vampire series of books but not all of them are good. There are so many books out there that just merely throw the vampire into its story, without any real thought as to what they are or where they come from. I’ve never made any bones about my severe dislike for most vampire fiction books and although I might like them if I could just get through the bad sentence structure and the almost angelic romantic views of vampires, I could never really get into the authors’ lack of understanding about the creatures that stalk our dreams and take over our imaginations.
Then I was talking to a friend during my lunch break and he told me he was reading the new Guillermo Del Toro book. I had mentioned I wanted to read it and the next week was given the book. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know it was a vampire story until reading the back of the book but I decided to give it a shot and, hoping for at least an entertaining read, opened the book and began the journey. What I got was perhaps one of the best written, most UN-romanticized, old and yet slightly modernized view of the vampire.
The Story starts…….with a fairy tale. A grandmother feeding her grandchild while reciting stories of monsters and demons in a time long long ago. It is in this opening chapter, I feel, you meet the most interesting character, Abraham. I know that it has been said already but I agree with the notion that a book completely about him would have been more interesting. Who he is, what his life was like, etc. I almost feel as if he should have been the protagonist of the story and not the doctor we meet later on. But seeing as this is a trilogy perhaps we shall learn more about Abraham’s past in the next book.
Regardless it is here where I started noticing that this was not going to be your typical vampire tale. In fact for the first couple chapters I had the book opened side by side with my copy of Bram Stokers Dracula. The first couple chapters feel like a modern retelling of the story. After the introduction of the fairy tale the story fast forwards in time to the present-day. A Boeing 777 has gone completely dark on the runway and has arrived to it’s destination with every person deceased, as the cursed Demeter did. It’s a somber omen setting off the strange chain of events that would soon follow. The bizarre cargo stored on the plane eerily made me think of what the Demeter was carrying, and the fairy tale told to the child in the beginning of the book, about a gentle giant who came back “changed” and children who began disappearing in the middle of the night, harked back to poor Lucy, the “booful lady (Beautiful Lady)” who would take children from their bed, her voice becoming a warning much like the tapping of the cane in the fairy tale.
Once the plane has landed and the horrors inside have been discovered, the book changes it’s viewpoint almost exclusively to Dr. Ephraim Goodweather. Which… his name kinda made me laugh considering everything that’s going on. I’m amused over pretty silly things. Anyway once they dealt with everything that has happened, they also find four survivors. Personally I found it interesting that the four people that survived the horrors were from four parts of the plane. One from coach, one from business class, one from first class and one from the cockpit. A plane is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, on a plane, you’re all the same… you’re all dinner.
As for the parts I was really excited about, the vampire folklore, I don’t know if this was all unintentional or if they REALLY did their research but they really dug deep with some of the old folklore of vampire history while giving it a completely modern and scientific feel. Transylvania (or any country really as they all have their own version of the vampire but I’ll mostly be talking about the eastern European ones) folklore has believed in vampires for a long time. And there have been just as many stories. But for the most part vampires in these folklore tales all share many of the same characteristics: they decompose slower and strangely compared to other corpses, they look ruddy and have a tendency to return to their loved ones first and infect their neighborhoods afterward. All three of those things were touched upon by Hogan and Del Toro. The hair falling out, the crippled hand, the blackening of the eyes, all makes sense because they are, indeed, dead. Many people forget that little tidbit that vampires are dead human beings, they smell, they rot, they are not sexy and most certainly not sexual (Yes I really liked that part of the book too, you don’t need what you can’t use). Most things have a logical meaning, including the fact that Crosses and Holy Water don’t do much to vampires because the ideas were all fabricated by village churches. There are many cases for either theory that they are and are not affected by religious relics but it make sense doesn’t it? When a village is hit by a “vampire” who are they going to go to? The local village priest and what is this priest going to do if he is the corrupted sort? Milk it for all it’s worth. Please you’re talking about the same religion that sold indulgences so people could buy their way into heaven. It’s amazing how many superstitions were started by the church to feed on the fears of it’s people in order to keep them in line. (Vampires in their own right one could say.)
While this book didn’t have my favorite vampire quirk ever (When is someone going to write about an OCD vampire? That’s what I want to know.) ts does have one of the best ones. The idea that vampires cannot cross running water has been mentioned many times and in countless tales. It bothered me a little that there was no explanation given considering Abraham is a professor of Romanian studies and literature but this may have been an afterthought that the writers didn’t the think the readers would question. The answer is actually quite simple. Vampires cannot cross running water under their own power, though they may be carried across. Mostly because running water is pure, and cannot hold magic. See how easy that was?
But the best part of the book was the correlation between vampire and parasite. Del Toro and Hogan hit the nail on the head. In all honesty when you stop to think about it, the vampire IS a parasite. We have always considered that the the parasite feeds on host (vampire feeding on victim) but we’ve rarely thought about a human being the “host”, and there is a parasite inside it, feeding on another host in order to stay alive. In old pictures, specifically in a rather famous painting by Munch or even Max Schreck, the vampire “feeds” off a victim much like a parasite feeds off a host. It is a far less magical or romantic notion but it’s there.. and it’s very valid.
The book isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The book jumps around so much I had to go back and reread some of the short chapters because the scene kept changing every five minutes. It did indeed convey the sense of urgency that is being felt and continues that feeling throughout the whole book, really making you sit on the edge of your seat with your hand to your mouth in horror at all times, but I feel like longer, fewer chapters would have been less confusing. Also there seems to be too many plot lines all at once. I’m not exactly sure if the whole back story with Goodweather and his family was necessary although more about Abraham would have been nice. I think because Abraham’s background deals directly with the monster in question while Goodweather’s back story seems to merely be plot device only to get you to like and feel sympathy for him more. Which you don’t. Not that he is not likable but as the reader, at least for me, I never felt emotionally connected to him and felt that his whole back story could be cut out without any damage done to the story itself. The book also does drag on and on towards the end. I found myself getting slightly annoyed that the book was still doing plot exposition with two chapters left. But all in all I’m extremely excited for the next book to come out and by far this is the best vampire fiction book I’ve read in a long time.