Ambitious Reading List: The Strain By Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan (2009)
I’m not the biggest Guillermo del Toro fan in the world. I think he has a very distinct visual style and one hell of an imagination, but we just don’t jibe on what scares/fascinates/interests us. I also think he really missed the mark with the Hellboy films, but that’s more of a fanboy thing. Anyway, The Strain is one of those books that I only started hearing about when it finished up earlier this year. I hadn’t heard much about it, but that’s no real surprise because I don’t really read a lot of horror books or stay up on book news as much as I used to. However, when I heard the basics of the plot and saw it on sale at Barnes & Noble for $6 or $7, I snatched it right up.
If you, like me, weren’t familiar with the book, it’s about a vampire virus working its way through New York City. Our hero is Eph, a doctor with the CDC who leads a team of scientists whose main mission is to find and contain contagious diseases. He and his partner Nora get brought in when a plane lands at JFK and, after being on the runway a few minutes, winds up completely dead, both power and occupancy wise. From there, it’s very slowly revealed to Eph what’s going on and we meet Satrakian, a man whose known vampires since his days in a concentration camp, a just-out-of-jail Latino kid named Gus, Fet the exterminator as well as Eph’s ex wife Kelly, their son Zach and some other folks.
Overall, I liked this book. It was revelatory as far as horror goes, though it definitely had some interesting ideas and tried to keep things scientific for the most part, treating them like an actual virus and drawing apt comparisons to existing organisms, which I appreciate. I dug the characters and thought they were mostly handled well and especially liked how the action scenes were written. I found them clear and exhilarating without being too confusing, which can happen when there’s TOO much action detail.
But I also thought it was too long, focused on some random characters it didn’t need to and felt less like a book and more like a movie. The first two complaints can be easily combined, I think there’s a version of this book with 50 fewer pages that’s a lot tighter and doesn’t waste so much time getting into the plane (we get it, it’s creepy, get in there already!) or with characters who ultimately don’t matter (far too many people at the airport turn out to have no real agency in the book). Also, not for nothing, but it takes around 100 pages for anyone to really start talking about vampires IN A BOOK ABOUT VAMPIRES. We’re all on the train, you don’t have to keep laying down track.
The last complaint is a bit more difficult to explain. There’s a complaint by some when it comes to comic books that some miniseries’ or series’ are just reformatted screenplays that couldn’t sell in Hollywood. It’s the kind of thing I didn’t quite understand at first — a cool idea is a cool idea, it should work regardless of the medium — but it’s something I’ve developed an ability to spot in the Supreme Court definition of pornography kind of way (I know it when I see it). Very soon after starting this book I got the distinct feeling that it would either work better as a movie or that del Toro’s screenwriting style overwhelmed Hogan’s (I’ve never read one of his books, so I can’t really judge either way). There were so many scenes that felt like quick jump cuts to something else for the sole purpose of showing you a piece of information. It’s not a big deal a few times but when it’s an all-the-time thing it can get a little tiring. Also, showing a quick scene in a movie works because it lasts as long as you wind up making it last after editing, but it takes me as long to read a page as it does no matter what, so something that’s supposed to be a quick piece for you can take me longer and I start wondering what the point of all these vignettes really is. If you can explain something in a quick line in a later paragraph instead of giving it its own chapter, do that.
I will admit that some of the problems I had in the reading of this book stem from my personal experience. I haven’t really read a horror book since The Exorcist and that was not only a long time ago, but a very different type of horror. The only vampire books I’ve ever read were the first two Anne Rice ones and The Last Vampire series by Christopher Pike. The majority of my horror experience being with films, I’ve developed a very quick, “let’s do this” attitude when it comes to horror. It’s basically a formula. Character A enters situation 2, it can end in one of four ways, let’s see how it goes. When I’m watching this, I can do other things or be as invested as I want to be, but when I’m reading them, I get a lot more impatient because I’m working through the formula and trying to figure it out at a slower pace than I can watching something. It’s also a case where something in one medium can be enjoyable with far less effort than in another, but that’s just the difference between movies and books.
Even with those complaints, however, I enjoyed the experience of reading this book. The editor in my was chopping out entire characters, chapters and paragraphs while reading which was annoying, but it was intense enough at the end and hit the right spots in the formula to get me interested enough in the other two books. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for them at B&N next time we go.
A quick Ambitious Reading List update: I’m not sure if I’m up for the challenge of reading Devil In The White City at the moment. I’m going to give it another shot soon, but will see. After that I’ve just got Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, Aimee Bender’s book and Please Kill Me, which I will close things out with. I’ve had a great time with this little reading project and even though it’s taken me more than a season to get through all the books, I’ve already got my next stack mostly lined up.