Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan have written The Strain, the first book in a vampire trilogy. And the good news is, their spin on vampires comes with a noticeable creep factor, despite silliness. Spoilers below.
This book began life as a TV series pitch to FOX, a few years back. Del Toro scoffs at the romanticized image of the vampire that infests modern media, and wants a return to the dark folkloric roots of the creatures. He isn't alone: many of us are sick of these pale and pretty poseurs, brooding about their cursed immortality and chatting up jailbait by the Orange Julius. Oh sure, they can go all scary cat-face, just before they fight cheerleaders, but usually they look like they're trying to get a record deal. Honestly, what happened to the Horror? Someone who considers you a source of protein is not a good role model.
It's common to lay the blame for all this at the feet of Anne Rice, but it goes back further than that. Bela Lugosi's dapper aristocrat, dressed for a night at the opera, lunges to mind. The original Dracula is responsible for much of the bodice-ripping and doomed-love themes that still flit around the genre. The appearance and mannerisms of Count Dracula were inspired more by Bram Stoker's relationship with the stately and imposing actor Henry Irving than any actual Eastern European folklore.
Del Toro and Hogan pay tribute to Stoker's classic, while presenting a more primal depiction of the undead as figures of repugnance and terror. At the same time they borrow heavily from Richard Matheson. His excellent I Am Legend was the perhaps the modern novel first to deal with vampirisim scientifically, as a disease. It was made into an enjoyable film in 1964. While not exactly groundbreaking, The Strain combines the ancient stories that scared the kreplach out of our peasant ancestors, with our modern and wholly rational panic about plagues. The attempt is somewhat effective, although it falls short of the vampiric reinvigoration del Toro and Hogan seem to desire.
It begins on the 24th of September, 2010. Echoing the arrival of the Demeter in Dracula, a Regis Air 777 lands at JFK with no lights, and sits on the tarmac with all the window shades drawn. There is no communication from the airliner, not even a single cellphone call from the passengers. Everyone at the scene feels an ominous dread. When local and Federal authorities get inside the plane, all 210 people on board appear dead. Fearing the worse, Dr. Ephriam Goodweather of the CDC is summoned. Ephraim is a recovering alcoholic and is recently divorced. He'd much rather be spending a weekend with his beloved son but duty calls. At the site he and fellow epidemiologist Nora — who is totally hot — suit up and investigate the scene.
There is no sign of panic, violence, or trauma on the plane. Only four people are found alive, but unconscious. When they come to, they have no recollection of anything odd, and complain about sore throats. But since they seem fine, they're allowed to go home. Only the fourth survivor, flight crew member Captain Redfern (like Renfield, get it?), agrees to stick around the hospital to help Ephraim with his inquiries. The deceased are sent to morgues in four of the City's five boroughs and examined for peculiarities. None of the bodies shows any sign of rigor mortis or decomposition. There is still a slight but measurable core temperature, and everyone has a hairline laceration, mostly on the neck. All their blood has been replaced by a turgid white ichor. There are also significant ongoing changes to the internal organs, and a strange growth on the vestibular folds above the larynx.
"Well, good work everybody, let's call it a night and get a fresh start tomorrow. No, I don't think we need to take any extra precautions. The night shift will give us a call if anything odd happens. 'Bye!"
Meanwhile back at the plane, three pieces of undocumented luggage have been found in the cargo hold. There's a kayak, a set of golf clubs, and a huge, long black wooden box covered with grotesque carvings exuding a miasma of menace. The bomb squad finds only a layer of rich soil inside, so they chuck it in an outbuilding with no security and only one camera. What the hell, really? Del Toro has stated he wanted the procedural feel of shows like CSI for this story. Given that series' regard for protocol and scientific accuracy, I'd have to say he got it 100%. Sure, this is a world where nobody believes in vampires but wouldn't extraordinary circumstances call for, oh I don't know, extraordinary measures? I think the golf clubs are sent to Broom Lake for further study.
The next day there is a total eclipse of the sun over New York City (look it up – no there isn't.). During the eclipse, or occultation as the authors prefer, the big box of dirt disappears mysteriously from the airport. An old man shows up at the morgue, annoying everybody by insisting that the bodies be destroyed. The cops arrest him, but not before he totally creeps Ephraim out with his ranting about UV light and ancient evil, blah, blah, blah. The four survivors are acting oddly, and their throats are feeling worse. One of them, a Marylin Manson-style rockstar, is getting his freak on with some groupies and gets really, really freaky. Another man is at his suburban home with his family and dogs when... well, best Toolshed of Horror since Shaun of the Dead. Before the night is out, all the corpses from the 777 are missing but the authorities insist everything is just fine. Ephraim, the brilliant doctor, is beginning to suspect otherwise.
From fairly early on, we learn all this is part of a Nefarious Plan by the creaky, old billionaire, Palmer Eldritch who wants to live forever. Uh, guys — Philip K. Dick called, he wants his villain back. Very little of the Plan is revealed. I suppose it will all make sense in the subsequent volumes, that's suspense, right? So far it shows all the logic and business acumen I've come to expect from South Park's Underwear Gnomes. Mostly Eldritch shows up once in a while tenting his hands and softly saying, "Excellent!"
The plot so far is rather silly, but I really liked the rebooted old-school vampires. They resemble Max Schreck from Nosferatu a great deal, as well as the Reapers from del Toro's Blade II. The change is brought upon by a crazy-ass virus using tiny parasitic worms as a vector. All the organs are replaced with new structures, cancerous mockeries of human anatomy, the genitalia wither and hair falls out in clumps. Grey mottled flesh writhes constantly as the worms take residence in the circulatory system. Preternaturally fast and strong with a predator's heightened senses and always hungry.
After most of these people's personality has been burned away, all that remains is a compulsion to return home to be with their Dear Ones. In all the gruesome descriptions of the attacks and feeding is the sense of horrific violation and betrayal. Your friends and family are part of a new family and want you to join them. Give Momma a kiss.
And what a kiss. No retractable canines needed here. Vampire 2.0 comes with a fabulous new nutritional input system you'll just flip for. The jaw unhinges like a PEZ dispenser, but instead of candy, a stinger-tipped tendril whips out a meter or two, piercing a major artery. Paralytic venom and virus go in, red, red blood is pumped out. As a nice added detail, they defecate while feeding, a thin transparent slime that reeks of burnt ammonia. Edward never does that. Soon (how long is not quite clear) each victim turns ready to infect more people, adding to the hive of bloodsuckers. The only reason vampires never took over the planet before is because of some Ancient Pact by six Master vampires. Now a seventh rogue Master has made a deal with Palmer Eldritch, and the infection spreads geometrically across New York City.
Yeah, all kinds of furious handwaving here.
Fortunately we have some fearless vampire hunters on the case. Ephraim and his trusty sidekick Nora hook up with that ranting old guy from the morgue. Abraham Setrakian has been hunting the revenant strigoi since he first encountered one at the infamous Treblinka II concentration camp. All his life, eccentric University professor has been doing the Van Helsing thing, tracking and killing vampires all over the globe. Now he runs a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem. This would seem an anti-climax, but it has proven to be an excellent way to amass a stockpile of weapons and other items of dubious provenance. Setrakian gives Eph and Nora a crash course in vampire-killing. Crosses and holy water are useless, these are strictly secular suckers. Sunlight works best, if you can pull them from their nests, a high-powered UVC lamp will cook them nicely. Silver, not wood, does a lot of damage and decapitation is always a good idea.
The old frail professor is still a major badass head-cutter and Eph is a quick study with a sword. Nora can wield the weaponized nail gun with the best of them, but she's there mostly to look totally hot and scream at appropriate moments. The new team gets a big boost when Vasily Fet joins the cause. Vasily is New York's finest Pest Control Officer, an expert in rats and their underground world. Swings a mean length of rebar too. Also look out for Gus Elizade, an eighteen year old hood whose mean streets just got a whole lot meaner. He seems fated to fight vamps too, but his future looks doubtful.
The Strain is a breakneck thrill ride chronicling only the first four days of the vampire plague that may destroy civilization. The cinematic quality really comes though, making the book feel more like a action blockbuster than a thought-provoking horror novel. The publisher is hyping the heck out of this book, and it will sell like a Dan Brown of the Undead. It has some dopey parts, but is also pretty entertaining and scary. This would be an excellent vacation read, although I would not recommend reading the first fifty pages on an airplane if you are a nervous flier. Save it for the beach soaking up the UV rays.
There is also a Spanish-language version, Nocturna, in trade paperback.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to all the strigoi as Christopher Hsiang. He regularly enjoys drinking los vampiros in his neighborhood. ¡Muy sabroso!