There’s very little new in The Strain but it’s a well put together horror romp which successfully revitalises an old genre. Obviously intended to be adapted for the screen (it’s written by a film director after all, and has indeed been transformed into a TV series), this novel re-treads an old story in the modern style. It mixes familiar themes and gore-soaked scenes that are perfect for rapid reading.
The second half of the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first, however. The opening chapters are the best realised, with a possibly-contaminated jet plane being inspected by CDC officials, unaware of the plague they are about to unleash. The tension runs high initially, with the action slicing between the core characters and the spooky plane. However, once the contagion spreads then the creativity stalls and much of the plot re-tells a standard story with only a few creative embellishments – although the finale is extremely satisfying.
SPOILER ALERT: it’s nigh-on impossible to say more about The Strain without mentioning the subject of the book. If you don’t want to know what it’s about then skip the rest of this!
The Strain draws upon many of the legends of the genre and discards some of the more nonsensical while incorporating useful other themes (cunningly ties together the use of silver and mirrors, for instance). In parts it is excellent, and I came close to saying that it is the Salem’s Lot or Bram Stoker’s Dracula of its time… but the truth is that it falls somewhat short because it relies on one too many of the old clichés. Some of the traditional staples are welcome old friends, like the old geezer from eastern Europe who can conveniently supply all the info about the dread enemy, but other tropes just feel tired and worn out. For example, no one believes the hero’s story so he must battle authority while the dread enemy runs rampant, and all that. If you’ve seen any zombie movies from the recent past then quite a bit of The Strain will feel familiar. Which is a shame, because the new stuff – including a plausible explanation for blood-sucking physiology – is great.
So expect plenty of gore, some gruesome bits, zero sex, lots of fast action and a decent set up for the second book in the trilogy. I have high hopes for the next book in the series (The Fall, which is followed by The Night Eternal). Having done all the predictable stuff in the opening episode, maybe the authors can move on to fresher ground and explore some more of the interesting scenario they’ve created. I’ll definitely be looking out for book two, and the TV series.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is available in paperback or ebook