Vampires aren’t scary anymore. Blame Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, Hot Topic, whoever; whatever the reason, blood-sucking fiends lurking in the shadows no longer carry the same old skin-crawling cultural cachet. Which presents a problem for writers who still want to use them. The modern solution, and the one director Guillermo Del Toro and writer Chuck Hogan opt for in their new novel The Strain, is to drain the archetype of its supernatural trappings. No more moping goths, Christian symbolism, or demonic villainy; now it’s a biological threat that has to be handled with modern technology. The result has become nearly as much a cliché as Count Chocula, but it still has a little juice left.
Del Toro and Hogan haven’t completely ditched the spookiness, of course. When a Boeing 777 arrives dead at JFK Airport in New York City, not even the rapid-fire response time of the local authorities can dispel a sense of superstitious dread. Dr. Eph Goodweather leads the CDC team that investigates the site, and what they find makes no sense: peaceful corpses, a handful of confused survivors, and no hint as to what happened. Goodweather’s boss wants to write the whole thing off as an isolated incident, but Eph isn’t so sure that’s a good idea. Something very new and very old has arrived. And Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor who’s been waiting his whole life for this day, knows exactly how deadly that something could be.
Del Toro is best known for his films; this is his first novel, writing in conjunction with the more established Hogan, and the result is a predictable but generally engaging thriller. The chapters come in short bursts, mimicking the editing of a big-budget epic. It makes for a fast read, but the rapid-fire parade of characters means that few make an impact. The world-building works best when it’s distracting from cliché, instead of trying to inspire honest emotion. Del Toro fans will recognize certain familiar tropes—the quest for immortality, the vampiric physiognomy, and the ever-popular things in jars—but those motifs are muted on the page. Strain is the first part in a proposed trilogy, which makes that lack of personality troubling. Roller coasters are fun while they last, but there’s a reason they don’t last long.