(2009) Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan, Harper, £6.99, pbk, 495 pp, ISBN 978-0-007-31129-3
Take one renowned film director (Mimic, Blade II, Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth) and one fantasy author (The Blood Artists and Prince of Thieves) and see if they can write a great novel? And so we have The Strain…
A plane lands at New York but on touchdown contact is lost. Breaking into the craft all but half a dozen passengers and crew are found dead. In the hold there is a strange casket. Then odd things happen: some of the survivors go missing as do, very worryingly, some of the corpses from the morgue… Meanwhile, and old pawnshop owner who has survived a World War II concentration camp, prepares for an on-coming battle…
What del Torro and Hogan have produced is effectively a modern take on the vampire mythos but one that is combined with the tropes of zombies and plague pandemics. The plane landing sequence and subsequent airport scenes are particularly compelling and if not a nod to Dracula's sea voyage to England. There are also a number of other interesting set pieces such as in the aircraft hanger investigating the casket (or trying to at least).
However what genre buffs will want to know is whether this high-octane mix of talent has worked to produce high-octane horror? Well, if you like your novels to be slow-burn with episodes of action/horror then The Strain will be a compelling read. On the other hand, if you do not like slow-burn then this will disappoint. What seems to have happened – though I admit I may be wrong – is that del Toro has provided Hogan with a film treatment and Hogan has then embellished it turning it into a novel. The problem is that while each is gifted in their own medium (film or books), these formats are quite distinct and converting one into the other is a skill few have even though in this case each of the collaborators is well established in their respective fields.
In film a picture can tell a thousand words and actors often get (or themselves create) character briefs separate to any script. Here the character's background is often tediously presented before the substance of the chapter gets underway, and boy does this disrupt the narrative flow and is (as far a I am concerned boring). And so we get a drawn out novel. This is fine – as I said – if you like that sort of thing. Yet in this case a handful of the key protagonists have just begun to be aware of what is going on, after two days in the novel's time, when the book ends. Yes, The Strain is the first of a trilogy. For my money The Strain as a trilogy would make for an excellent (albeit somewhat formulaic) horror film, and the trilogy might even make for a great single novel. Alas, we have neither of these. Yet I am sure that the authors' respective fame, and those that like slow-burn stories, will ensure that The Strain's sales are respectable. While The Strain is itself not a bad novel, I decidedly expected more from del Toro and Hogan's creative marriage and not a jarring of formats. In short, the novel is the first of a trilogy that starts very well but fails to live up to this early promise. A little disappointing, but others may be more forgiving.
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