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The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

When my friend Susan told me that Guillermo del Toro was doing a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, I was taken by surprise.

What would he be reading? part of a book collaboration on film? No. It turns out that between screenwriting and directing, del Toro has taken time out to plan and write the first book of a vampire trilogy with writer Chuck Hogan (of the very excellent Prince of Thieves).

I knew I wanted to see this and got to the bookstore an hour before the event was to take place. The seating was already half taken up–mostly by men, I noticed–but I was able to find a decent spot halfway up to the reading area. As the time grew closer, the seats were all filled and those who went to the bathroom five minutes before the event lost their seats. The staff selected only females out of the sizable crowd standing in back to plug up the holes; this is nothing I’ve ever seen before at readings. Forced diversity?

I almost never buy a hardcover book anymore since space is at a premium in my apartment and I live close to some of the world’s greatest libraries. When del Toro said, though, that The Strain copies with the slashes in their book jackets were a limited run, I did geek out and buy one.

It is a beautifully designed book. Beneath the book jacket is a blurry blood-tinged photo of Grand Central Terminal, what I’ve always thought of as the gateway to New York’s subway system, which plays a big part in The Strain.

The Strain borrows some from the plot and characters of that vampire classic Dracula. The most successful refurbishing, I think, is the arrival of the vampire from the Old World to America. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an empty ship, the Demeter, crashes into the coastline of England; it has been mysteriously abandoned, but when the ship’s log is studied, officials discover that the crew was picked off one by one and sometimes in twos. In The Strain, a Boeing 777 cruises into JFK and then all communication stops. When an emergency response team finally boards the aircraft, they find rows and rows of dead passengers. Miraculously, four survive, but one of them, a lawyer, gets them sprung from quarantine. Later, the dead passengers reanimate, as well, and quickly get to work turning the New York population into vampires, with stingers beneath their tongues instead of fangs. These vampires are more akin to zombies, only looking to add to their group of the undead. They are not as finicky as the vampires I’ve grown up with and the turning procedure is as easy as sneezing on somebody.

The Strain moved quickly for me. I found it a gripping read until I got to the final showdown in the subway tunnels. In a Paris Review interview with Robert Gottlieb on the art of editing, writer Charles McGrath says, “There was a certain type of writing we used to laugh about a lot. We called it ‘cry of the loon’ writing–that kind of overblown nature prose.” In The Strain, I found evidence of what might be the “cry of the sewer rat.” Suddenly there was obsessive detail upon detail about the bowels of the New York City subway system, slowing down what had been a fine, clipping pace to a dead stop.

I can forgive it, however, when given such gems as these: “Matt’s throat rippled and bucked, and Eph attacked it, stabbing, knifeknifeknifeknifeknife.” That is a fine use of italics and stands as my favorite sentence of the book.

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