whether or not you want to go. that is, at least, the general thrust of guillermo del toro and chuck hogan’s the strain, the first of the apparently now unavoidable trilogy of vampire infection novels which i read on friday afternoon.
fair warning: spoilers lurk below. read at your own discretion. and it is worth reading, so if you have any plans so to do, bookmark this and come back later.
for about the first 140-150 pages, i don’t know if you could distinguish the strain from any reasonably well-written police procedural along the lines of, say, a lynda la plante or douglas preston/lincoln childs effort. there’s almost a feeling of “by god, we did this research and you are going to friggin’ well know about it!” there are some flashback sections written from the point of view of the van helsing-style character about his previous encounters with something large, nasty, and bloodsucking, but they’re pretty vague and almost more distraction than they’re worth.
there are some good scares in here, though — the sequence with the “dead” plane sitting on the runway at jfk has more than one. the descriptions of the darkness inside the plane are almost lovecraftian. and we don’t get too bogged down in what i have to imagine in real life would be an incredible post-9/11 labyrinth of red tape which might keep anyone from doing anything until the vampires are crawling up the struts of the golden gate bridge, having taken a leisurely cross-country stroll to get there.
there are also shadows of bones — although this might just be me because bones and merlin are my new brain candy friends — in the lengthy forensic dissection scenes as well as shades of salem’s lot in what the infected characters do. i won’t say that what happens with the “dead” bodies isn’t predictable because, well, it is. you’ve read dracula? any laurell hamilton novel? any stephen king? great — then you know that not all corpses are as corpse’y as they may appear. no big shock there, really. but the penultimate reveal for this in a midnight forensic lab with the single doctor working to discover what it is that’s in the blood of all these weirdly perfect corpses he’s just been handed as the silence gathers around him is really creepy.
there are some great secondary characters — i found that the mexican gangboy, gus, was almost more compelling than the hanger-on to our doctor protagonist who seemed like a “we need a chick in here somewheres” character. i hope to see more of him in the follow-up novels (and, presumably, the inevitable movie.) the four infected characters who escape hospital surveillance and return to their homes, thus providing the first wave of vampiric infection, are also really good. i think i particularly liked the one man who had to return home to a deeply mentally disturbed wife, two children, and two dogs, and spends his slow downhill slide into bloodlust trying not to eat his saint bernards. there’s also a great scene later in the novel where his wife, trying desperately to cope with a situation she is just totally unprepared for, comes up with a novel way of getting rid of an annoying neighbor.
the vampires themselves are interesting. they’re not so much fanged bloodsuckers as giant leeches on feet; they don’t have fangs or sharpened teeth or nails, rather a large “stinger” under the tongue and in the throat which serves the same purpose. the preliminary symptoms are described with some relish as being like the onset of a bad bout of flu: sore throat, high fever, headache, etc. i found i got really thirsty reading it because two of the infected characters were giving such vivid descriptions of how much they wanted something to drink; of course, we as readers can watch from the outside and enjoy our secret knowledge that, no matter how much fruit punch, poland spring, or double malt scotch they knock back, it won’t do the job.
the “stinger” was a new idea for me — i don’t know if there’s something out there in the vampire canon i’ve missed; very likely this is the case — but it presented another issue that i wish del toro and hogan had dealt with or at least mentioned: the vampires can’t talk. there are, as there always are, older generation vampires or elders or what have you, who are more human in appearance, more in control of their thirst, and able to communicate with humans and, presumably, other vampires, but other than that we mostly seem to just have a headless horde of berserkers with big stingers and really poor bodily hygiene. the first four infected characters — bar one — become slightly more powerful servants for the vampire elder, but they can’t communicate either and they’re barely more in control of themselves.
i don’t know why, but the idea of this whole army of vampires who can’t talk, can’t communicate with each other or with their prey in any way, just frustrates me. i at least want some acknowledgement that this is an important point — in their development into something non-human or their “death” or something. or it would be nice to know that they communicate by scent or telepathy or the elder is in charge of the whole lot or something. all of these i would have bought more or less without question; the rest of this world was built convincingly enough that i’m willing to go with it. even if the authors had wanted to have their vampires totally other, completely non-human, who says they have to speak english? the vampires in 30 days… had that great predatory, avian, screechy thing going on which clearly served as some kind of language but was nowhere near english.
the only other real issue i had with the whole thing was the flashbacks from the van helsing character. his entire backstory involves his first encounters with this vampire elder in the treblinka concentration camp as the vampire feeds his way slowly through the prisoners. this made me slightly twitchy. i’m not one of those people who thinks you can’t write about the holocaust or shouldn’t or it shouldn’t be used for fiction or anything like that and, as far as i can tell, the authors described the camp accurately and didn’t fuck about with the actual historical facts other than adding in the vampire. but — i don’t know. it seems gratuitious to take an event that’s absolutely chock to the brim with good ol’ fashioned human evil and top it up with supernatural nasty. there’s no suggestion that the vampire was in some way in charge of the camp or running the show or anything like that; if anything, he’s hiding from the guards as much as the prisoners try to because he doesn’t want to be found either. but…still. there was something slightly uncomfortable about it and i was glad when that bit was done.
on the whole, though, excellent summer reading; i’ll look forward to the second one.
edit: i knew i missed something. there was another book this reminded me of and it took me ’til halfway home along the esplanade today to think of it — david wellington’s monster… series (island, nation, planet — all fully worth the read if you’re feeling the need of a zombie gore fix). the vampire elder in the strain plays a similar role to gary in the first and last of the monster… books. that was it. i feel better now.
p.s. and if anyone is curious, the subject line quote is from 30 days of night — the stranger talking to eben oleson.