Book Review: The Strain squanders an excellent hook

the strain coverThis. This is why I hate the word “epic”. Especially when used in advertising patter for genre fiction, where its positive connotation is presumed to be about as strong as “delicious” is for cookbooks.

I’m talking about the Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan novel The Strain and its sequel The Fall. (These are the first two books of a trilogy; whether or not I read the third is very much up in the air.)

You may have heard about it because you are more into horror than I am, or perhaps the recently debuted FX series has brought it to your attention.

The hook—which is undeniably excellent—is a vampire plague for the modern age of pandemics and bioterrorism. It all starts with a single flight landing stillborn in New York. The CDC brings in is crack team, consisting in this instance of genius epidemiologist Ephraim and his cardboard cutout of a partner, Nora.

For the first two-thirds of the first book, The Strain trilogy is compulsively readable. It’s a slow-burn thriller that feels more like The Andromeda Strain than anything else. Vampire mythology is toyed with, as it should be, and doled out with care; the veneer of biology is kept carefully intact.

It’s hard to say when, exactly the scales finally tip. Probably as soon as The Master gets involved. The Master is exactly what he sounds like: a Big Bad vampire behind everything. (He is literally a giant, thanks to well-implemented riff on history and folklore.)

A disease is scary because it doesn’t have a plan. A virus is terrifying because it simply self-replicates. We’re collateral damage. It’s impassive. To wit: Werner Herzog should love viruses, they’re a perfect literary representative just how few fucks nature gives about humankind.

Unfortunately, Del Toro and Hogan apparently give just as few fucks about their science-sharpened hook and summarily drop it for an increasingly “epic” saga. The farther the infection spreads from that first plane, the more tenuous the connection to the novel’s best idea becomes, until it is completely subsumed by its own infection: epic bloat.

After some initial investigation, Ephraim doesn’t even get to begin looking for a cure. He doesn’t get to study the vampire pathogen. Van Helsing (basically) just shows up and Tells Them How It Is, and the ‘stubborn’ and ‘brilliant’ scientist says screw it and tosses aside his stethoscope for a silver sword. (His partner Nora, meanwhile, does essentially nothing.)

Much fighting and shedding of blood ensues.

By the end of the second book (SPOILERS!) the space station is falling out of the sky, the world is plunged into eternal night, and the original vampires are hinted at being somehow connected to nuclear explosions and an angel. There are vampires hunting vampires, psychic vampires, and Nazi vampires. Van Helsing makes his sacrifice, nuclear war erupts, and everything seems totally hopeless.

Of course.

At this point, the final novel can play out one of two ways for me: the authors  continues to their narrative over to the impulse to have Good Guys fighting Bad Guys and the Good Guys eventually pull out a win… Or the authors jump the tracks they’ve been laying for two books end whole thing on a downer just because. Neither would be particularly satisfying.

(Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy watching Good win against Evil in Saturday Morning Cartoon fashion, but when I need a dose of tried-and-true wish-fulfillment fantasy I don’t need to slog through 1500 pages of apocalypse to get it.)

You’d think all of this insanity would make things interesting, but the stakes are so high now that they are exhausting not interesting. Why couldn’t we just have a novel about a vampire-virus outbreak in NYC?

This is to say nothing of prose that dips way too often into “How did this get past an editor?” territory. Ham-fisted attempts at literary metaphors abound. There are entire chapters wasted indulging an apparent need to reaffirm that these vampires are indeed scary by introducing us to someone we’ve never met just so they can die a terrible un-death.

All of this would be forgivable, I expect, if the books had at least kept their unique spark alive.

First rule of epidemiology: if a patient has been exposed to a pathogen and survives, their immune system will be primed to repel it. The authors choose an interesting strain—not entirely new but new enough—of vampire fiction but quickly abandon it for tropes most readers have encountered enough times to be immune to by now.

Bonus women-in-fiction rant: Nora, the protagonist’s partner and love interest, literally has nothing to do for the entire first book and in the second book is only given the job of Running Away With The Kid. This brings the total of female main characters with developed backstories and personalities to a whopping zero.

Just go read Richard Matheson’s I am Legend instead.
– K

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Strain squanders an excellent hook

  1. When reading a literary review ( or review of schlock), one usually expects to come away bored, grated, educated, and often confused. So it was a pleasant surprise when, upon reading Rickken’s “Book Review: The Strain squanders an excellent hook”, I found it to do none of these things to me. “Book Review” is laugh-out-loud funny, and contains few thread-bare cliches like the one I just used. The writing is sharp, crisp, and saucy, and succinct. Take for instance, the tenth paragraph:

    “Much fighting and shedding of blood ensues”

    There. All you need to know. If only Hogan and Del Toro had such good sense and brevity. William Zinsser would be proud. But in spite of the piece’s succinct nature, it has a wide scope. Rickken manages to draw sweeping conclusions about epidemiology, identity theory, linguistics, etiquette, and Godel’s theory of incompleteness. While the short paragraphs do indicate shallowness of thought, this shallowness does cover all that the reader needs to know regarding the main subject.

    If there is a main thesis statement to the sweeping epic that “Book Review” is, it is that the plot of The Strain seems at times to have been formulated by a group of middle schoolers filling in a mad-libs sheet.

    My recommendation? Read “Book Review”. It will crack you up, and prevent any chance that you will go out and waste money on these books. It was well-formed enough that I used it to teach a student today what the point and form of a book review ought to be. It brightened my day, and it will yours. unless you are some sort of weirdo.

  2. Great review by Rickken of this trilogy of books , starting with “The Strain”. I am a fan of vampire horror books. But after reading this review it appears to be a waste of time to spend on these books. I enjoy the frankness of the review. Leading you thru an endless journey that leaves you exhausted and not interested. .

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