Posted by Holly
Vampires. The word alone will likely draw an image immediately to mind. Chances are, each one of us will have a slightly different image. Vampires being such a versatile creature in fiction, I’ve begun to consider them on a bit of a sliding scale: one end being the fully romanticized, all but human portrayals, where the vampires have a full range of intellectual and emotional capability. The other end has the feral, bestial type, controlled by insatiable bloodlust. What you see will mostly depend on your personal taste.
The Strain leans on the latter end, with mixed results. The creatures presented are undoubtedly frightening, but what, if anything, makes them distinctly scary as vampires?
The story has a number of narrative viewpoints, but primarily focuses its attention on Eph, a doctor for the CDC. He has an enormous amount of strife in his life already, not least of which being a bitter custody battle with his ex wife over their son, Zack. So when he finally has a weekend off from work, where he is able to bond with his son, the last thing he wants to deal with is an emergency call from work. However, when presented with the situation, he is compelled to investigate: a flight inbound from Germany stopped dead after landing and sealed itself. When the plane opened up again, seemingly without explanation, they could see that everything within it had lost function; more than that, every passenger was dead.
Before I get into anything else, I’ll address my major qualm with this book. It’s a full-on sausage fest. All of the major character viewpoints presented are male. All of the characters with any real consequence on the plot are male. All of them. This alone is annoying, but not a deal breaker. What gets trickier is the fact that there are potential major female players introduced, and then squandered as monster bait and women in refrigerators.
There are many short story arcs scattered throughout the book, some lasting only one or two pages, almost all of them introducing a new character interacting with the outbreak. Many of them show a person unaware of or unprepared for the situation at hand and meeting their demise as a result. Others provide the character with a chance to display moments of brilliance, resourcefulness, or simple dumb luck that allow for their continued survival. This is an interesting style that feels like a game of character roulette, but unfortunately, you quickly learn that the female arcs invariably lead to death.
The worst two offenders in this book are Kelly and Nora. Kelly plays the archetypal evil ex-wife foil to Eph, our well-meaning and flawed hero. They dip their toe into developing Kelly here and there, only to fridge her at the end to develop Eph’s pain. Nora is the current love interest, who is technically present throughout most of the book, but is such a non-entity so as to make it easy to forget she’s even there. They go so far as to have her stay behind during the big confrontation at the end to babysit Eph’s son. She survived this book, but my hopes for her overall story are dismal.
That said, it is an enjoyable little thriller. It never drags or gets boring, and there’s plenty happening with every new segment to keep your attention the whole way through. Horror and science fiction are such a natural blend, so I appreciated the clinical approach to vampires – their anatomy, their needs, and how the infection spreads are all addressed in varying detail in the story. I found these moments the ones I enjoyed the most.
On the other side of that statement, taking such a scientific approach to vampires presents its own problems. As stated, this story takes a much more bestial, feral approach to its vampires for the most part. Presenting this as an infection story, rather than a traditional vampire story, takes some of the intrigue out of the vampire aspect. Ultimately, this ends up risking making the creatures nearly indistinguishable from zombies, werewolves, or other monsters with an infectious nature. Vampires are often scariest when their human qualities are displayed: their ability to seduce you, outwit you, or simply earn your trust, before their uncontrollable side is seen.
One personal drawback for me was the pacing. This story seemed built for visual media (hence the TV adaptation), and things often happened too fast to get a real feeling for moment. The writing seems to lean on the momentum of short bursts of action, rarely pausing for a breath. There’s almost no attempt at sustained tension, each segment rarely lasting more than ten pages.
Overall, this is an entertaining read, that supports an infection story with solid writing. How well does it do vampires? Well, that will depend on what you pictured in that first statement. If you’re a fan of Del Toro, vampires, or just want a quick read that will keep you turning the pages, this is a pretty good book to dive into.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Solid, but a lot of wasted potential.
Scariness level: There are a few pretty chilling moments, lots of striking visuals described, but it lacks the sustained tension I look for in horror.
Violence level: Pretty high on the body horror, with plenty of extra gore to go around.
Bechdel test: There’s pretty much one forced conversation between Kelly and Nora, which is basically screaming about how awkward they are over their various relationships to Eph. Other than that, nope.
Mako Mori test: So many missed opportunities for a lady to step up and be badass.