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"The Strain" book review: returning to better vampiric days

On September 28, 2010

Guillermo del Toro is a bit of an insane genius when it comes to dark fantasy horror stories. Chuck Hogan is a bit of a toss up as a novelist even though he is a strong writer. "The Strain," the first book in a trilogy to be finished in 2011, shows what can happen in literature when writers of two different mediums put their minds together. Since the second book is to come out within the coming weeks, it's a good idea to examine the start of the trilogy.

The premise of the story is pretty simple: a plane landing takes an eerie turn when all power and communications on it go out. Almost everyone on the plane is either dead or appears to be dead. Then, the investigations and oddities ensue until a vampiric plague breaks out.

The general presentation is where it gets interesting. Right from the start, since the plague reaches America through overseas travel, it brings back memories of the good old days of Bram Stoker's "Dracula"- if you threw out the entire gothic romanticism; it also goes back to the idea of Stephen King's "Night Flyer," which was a deliciously devilous vampire story. But then it starts to present aspects of different tellings of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" and Stephen King's "‘Salem's Lot." Thus, there are a lot of throwbacks to some greats in the vampire lore genre.

But the question is whether or not it works. This book draws from four stories that defined and redefined the vampire genre, but it's very difficult to come up with stories that are good while making references to even just one classic story. And it's even harder to make an honest vampire story, since the hip thing to do nowadays is to make soulful, emo bloodsuckers like in "Twilight," "True Blood," "The Vampire Diaries," etc. The Strain goes back to the source material of vampire tales, which would probably turn off quite a few people; then again, this book seems to be more for the people who have been waiting for an actual vampire story.

The writing gets straight to the heart of the matter, while it stays hidden enough so that the atmosphere encompasses the reader. This is quite a feat to do, so it isn't perfect. The characters have lapses in realism where occasionally they seem fine, and then they suddenly start taking themselves too seriously or not seriously enough. Some of the action in the story could be better developed and described; imagery, that's supposed to shock the reader, also ends up falling flat because, even though it is good, it doesn't go far enough. Still, the overall writing is strong, even though there are some stylistic quirks and inconsistencies that don't make the reading experience as immersive as it should be.

Despite these quirks, which will probably be addressed and fixed in book two (titled "The Fall"), "The Strain" is enjoyable and pretty fun to read. It is only worth buying if you plan to get the rest of the trilogy that will come out. However, if you want to read it but aren't sure that the trilogy would be right for you, it's still worth a read through, so just head to a library and see if they have it. If you like things like "Twilight" though, for the love of Stoker, read the book and see what real vampires are supposed to be like.

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