I had high hopes for this book. Sad to say, I was disappointed.
I’m still not sure exactly why this exists. Del Toro is, of course, a renowned filmmaker, these days quite prone to attaching his name to film projects that never quite seem to materialize. Was this book, then, supposed to be a movie and only converted to prose when he couldn’t get funding? Or did he just decide that he wanted to try his hand at novel-writing? I guess it doesn’t really matter.
The prose is tolerable. There’s an occasional clunker of a line, but the writing is solid overall and there are enough evocative turns of phrase to keep the reader’s attention. This is an epic horror-thriller, however, and not the sort of book one reads for brilliant prose. What’s called for here are a handful of compelling characters, a smattering of spine-tingling “fright” scenes, and at lease one good original idea to hang the whole thing on. It’s not a complicated formula; this is the kind of thing Stephen King could churn out in his sleep. If you have those three things, nothing else really matters, the book will succeed, if only as a “beach read” sort of novel. Missing one of those things is gonna leave the reader unsatisfied and probably bored. Missing two means the book is BAD. Missing all three is inexcusable.
So let’s evaluate The Strain on those three points. First, the characters.
The characters suck
“Eph.” The main character’s name, also an exact onomatopoeic recreation of my response to every single person in this novel. Basically, the heroes are bland and perfect (Eph does, however, have the humility to admit his chief flaw: off-putting brilliance) while the villains are paper-thin and comically cruel. The minor characters fall into one of two categories: One – dull and useless, quickly killed off. Two: snobbish and insufferable, quickly killed off.
There’s an egregious lack of subtlety here. Seriously, the bad guy’s a decrepit old man named Eldritch Palmer (dictionary definition of Eldritch: adj, eerie, weird, spooky) which only makes me wish I was reading Phillip Dick. Oh, and the evil corporation is called Stoneheart. Did they consider Evil Incorporated? Too on the nose? Then there’s the hideously stock wise old man character with a tragic past, the tough and independent girlfriend, the precocious young boy, the douchey boyfriend of Eph’s ex-wife. Blah blah blah.
The characters suck.
Let me make something clear right now. I wanted to like this book. Epic horror novel by the guy who made Pan’s Labyrinth? Hell yes! I wanted to be entertained, I wanted to be scared. I tried to be scared. Ohh, spooky empty airplane! Ohh, creepy coffin! Ohh, bodies missing from the morgue! Snore. Horror only works if it’s happening to characters you care about, or if it’s just so magnificently grotesque and unnerving that it doesn’t matter to whom it is happening. Everything thing here just felt so… generic. It takes about fifty pages for the book to name-check both 9/11 and the Holocaust, which feels cheap and tacky and tired. The middle part of the book seems to drag on forever, just scene after scene of tedious suburbanites getting picked off by vampires. There were a couple decent moments, but they tended to be punctured by something, either the characters or the structure, or whatever. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons and ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King both did this stuff a lot better (though I’m not a tremendous fan of either book). The Strain just feels like a re-tread of all the old horror cliches, which brings us to the final point.
Everything is old here
The hook here is that this book is, in essence, a “real” vampire story. No more mascara-smeared bisexual Anne Rice vamps, no more quipping Buffy monsters, and definitely above all no more pretty-boy Stephanie Mayer emopires. This is the anti-Twilight, targeted right at all those obnoxious “vampires are monsters, dammit!” horror dorks.
So, for all those purists obsessing about the lore, lets see what we’re working with here: Hurt by sunlight? Check. Kills people and drinks their blood? Check. Goes to high-school so they can hook up with mopey girls? Certainly not. Okay then, sounds like vampires. And not just any vampires, but biologically plausible (just go with it) real-world vampires who don’t turn into wolves or get scared off by Catholic paraphernalia. Cool, in theory. In practice, however, vampires with no element of mysticism or sexuality just come off like a trudging mass of mindless feeding machines. That’s right, these are vampires so original that they actually loop back around to being the only horror monster more overused than vampires: zombies.
Last, and worst
Characters? Miserable. Scares? Tedious. Hook? Not so much.
Okay, so it’s not a great book. Fine, toss it aside and forget about it. Don’t read the next one, don’t recommend it, whatever. There’s something about this story, though, that got stuck in my head, a weird little undercurrent of thought which keeps popping up over the course of the novel. There’s a subtext here which is, I think, profoundly disturbing.
No point tiptoeing around it: this is one of the most straight up sexist books I’ve read in a long time. And I’m not talking about some politically correct nitpicking here, I’m talking about explicit and pervasive old-school anti-women patriarchal wish-fulfillment. Let’s break it down, shall we?
First off, every single female character here is weak, physically and mentally weak. Here’s a list:
Ann-Marie, a timid to-say-the-least housewife who is literally unable to function without her husband. She is described as shy, retiring and eccentric, and ends up killing herself in a way which is pointed out to be “extremely painful.”
Neeva, the ethnic nanny, is saved only by her total immersion in her motherhood role. Basically, she grabs the kids and runs off, falling off the face of the novel. Maybe she’s back in the sequel.
Glory is a battered housewife. She chops up her undead husband and is immediately punished for it with anal and oral rape, courtesy her husband’s phallic vampire worms.
Sylvia, the wife of a treacherous lacky, is in the story only long enough to reveal that she is, for no plausible reason, also working for the bad guys. She does nothing, and our heroes just leave her, I guess, since there’s apparently no possibility that she might know something, or be useful in any way.
Nora, playing the role of the tough independent sex object, never actually does anything tough or independent. I kept forgetting that she was there when Eph and Abraham were talking, because she didn’t get to say anything! I figured she’d probably help fight the vampires in a Lara Croft “I’m powerful and sexy but mostly sexy” sort of way, but she doesn’t even get that much. She is attacked by a vampire, and immediately crumbles. Eph rescues her. Blah. And then, just in case you’d missed the implied message, she gets left at home to watch the child so the men can go slay the big bad vampire. This was probably the most infuriating sequence in a book full of them. She tells Eph that she wants to come along. He says no, she needs to stay home and take care of the kid. She kisses him. He leaves. She does nothing for the remainder of the book. Are you fucking kidding me?! God, the message there is just staggeringly repulsive!
And then we have Kelly. Our hero’s ex-wife. She resents him, basically, because he makes her feel stupid. She leaves him and wrestles his child away, then has the audacity to get with another guy. Poor Eph, what did he ever do to deserve this? Don’t worry, gentle reader, she’ll get what’s coming to her! Eph tells her to take Zack and leave town. Her boyfriend Matt tells her to stay. She listens to Matt, of course. Her punishment is to be turned into a vampire, solely because the big bad vampire (who, we have been told, regards human’s as insects unworthy of attention) wants to piss off Eph. Like two boys fighting over a toy.
Eph then takes advantage of the global catastrophe to murder Matt. Yes, he’s a vampire at the time, but that’s incidental. And I quote: “All of his feelings for Matt – this man who had moved into his wife’s house and bed… who wanted to be his boy’s father… who sought to replace Eph – came surging up as he swung for Matt’s jaw.” He then chops up Matt with his big penis- I mean sword. Seriously.
Why is everything in this book so horrible? Why does it feel like it was written for an audience of Men’s Rights dipshits?
There’s a strange sexlessness here which I can only assume is a reaction to the whole Twilight thing. I mean, the guy’s dicks literally fall off when they’re turned into vampires. That’s about as unsubtle as it gets. Now, I’m certainly not going to defend Twilight, but I think Hogan and Del Toro and I have very different ideas about why those books were so offensive. Hint: it wasn’t because the vampires sparkled. Twilight is repugnant because of its grotesque message of female submission. The Strain embraces that message and runs with it all the way through.
You can dress up your undead monsters like GQ models or you can dress them up like a biological plague of blood-worms, all that really counts is what’s underneath. That’s what horror is all about, what it’s always been about. It’s not the monster that scares us, it’s the thing the monster represents.
The Strain is not anti-Twilight. The Strain is Twilight.