Everybody now knows of Guillermo del Toro, the genius filmmaker of things dark, grotesque and fantastical.
So it's no surprise that his first foray into fiction, "The Strain," is a masterpiece of horrific lyricism and ghastly atmosphere. Del Toro's talents mesh seamlessly with those of thriller/mystery author Chuck Hogan, slowly building up a suspenseful story of vampiric infection that threatens to engulf the entire human race. Half gut-clenching horror, half police procedural.
When Flight 753 lands at JFK, the entire plane goes dead -- and all but four passengers are found pale, bloodless and peacefully dead. And a giant cabinet is missing from the hold.
While a special disease unit tries to figure out the cause of death, Dr. Eph Goodwater starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of a cabinet from the hold. And strange physical changes begin occurring not only on the four survivors, but on the undecayed corpses in the morgue -- white blood, tracheal growths, enhanced senses, and a growing thirst for blood.
While ordinary people begin transforming into stinger-tongued horrors, Eph and his assistant Nora find Abraham Setrakian, an elderly pawnbroker who has fought the vampires since World War II. Fortunately he knows their weaknesses... and the ghastly Master who has broken an ancient truce. In just a few days, New York City is swarming with undead horrors, and
In some ways, "The Strain" initially seems like a 21st century version of "Dracula": a plane full of the dead, a coffin full of soil, and a little old man who knows way too much about vampires. But this book doesn't have a shred of Victorian romanticism or ornateness -- it's an intricate twist of New York City, scientific analysis, and grotesque horrors from darkened corners of the Old World.
And Del Toro and Hogan's writing styles complement each other beautifully. On one hand, Hogan builds up spooky suspense to hang over the plot, and manages to make the pathology and procedurals interesting. And del Toro embroiders it with moments of lyrical beauty (the occultation that stares "down at the earth with glowing, gossamer-white hair"), but he also splashes it with loads of pure horror (the heart in a jar that sends out suckers to snag blood).
And the vampires del Toro creates are the most horrific I've seen in a long time -- trust me, these are not sexy, romantic angsty immortals. They're corpses possessed by a ghastly virus that reshapes the body into a cancerous husk filled with parasitic worms. Also a stinger-tipped tentacle-tongue in yawning jaws. And while del Toro freaks us out enough with the biological changes, he also infuses the vampires with a genuine sense of evil. It's more than just a disease.
There's a pretty wide-ranging cast of characters here -- billionaires, housekeepers, doctors, street thugs, lawyers, and even a shock-rock-star in the Marilyn Manson vein. Eph is a likable protagonist -- a kindly genius with family issues and a rocky custody battle. Abraham serves as the Van Helsing of this story, and the authors use flashback chapters to explore how his battle started -- in a concentration camp.
As for the villain, the Master is a truly spinechilling one, all the more so because he uses the corrupted body of a saintly young man, and now dwells in one of the most horrific spots in New York City.
"The Strain: Book One of The Strain Trilogy" brings vampires back into the horror fold, and blends the talents of both Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro. Gripping, chilling... and not over.