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The Strain    by Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan order for
by Guillermo Del Toro
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I normally avoid horror novels like the plague but The Strain - first in a trilogy by Guillermo Del Toro (creator of Pan's Labyrinth) and Chuck Hogan - grabbed me by the throat from the first page and kept me reading even though I anticipated nightmares from it. Essentially it's a War of the Worlds fight - between man and vampire. But these are not the kind of ethical vampire we've been introduced to in series like Angel and Twilight. Rather, they're a twist on the original legend, totally alien and voracious beings with no humanity left in them.

The authors begin by taking us back in time to a boy, Abraham Setrakian, told a tale by his grandmother of a young Polish nobleman, Jusef Sardu, encountering a monster. Soon Abraham - and his family - encounter monsters of their own, as they are taken by the Nazis. Abraham ends up in Treblinka, where he observes a creature feeding at night on the weakest prisoners. Fighting it, his hands are crushed. But Abraham survives to escape the camp and make the study - and destruction - of the Master his life's effort. He ends up an elderly pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem, New York.

The modern story begins when a Boeing 777 lands at JFK and immediately goes dark - there's no communication from within and all its blinds are drawn. Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of CDC's Canary project - a field team of epidemiologists who provide a rapid response to biological threats - is called away from a treasured week-end with his son Zack - Eph is fighting for custody with his wife Kelly - to head the investigation. They find only four survivors on the plane, three of whom they are unable to keep under observation. All four soon begin to change, and the corpses of the remaining passengers disappear from the morgue.

Short chapters alternate between different scenes, their cinematic style conveying the horror clearly and directly to the reader. Eph and his romantic interest and on the job partner, Dr. Nora Martinez, scramble to understand something totally different from their prior experience - especially after they find a dirt-filled coffin on the plane - and then that goes missing too. Readers are introduced to frail seventy-six year old Eldritch Palmer, the richest man in the world, who uses the power of his Stoneheart Group to control events - but to what purpose?

It seems a lost cause for the good guys until Abraham finds his way to Eph and Nora and tells them what he knows of what has become a total extinction threat to humanity - including the fact that the Master who flew in from Europe may be at war with New World vampires. The trio is joined later by Vasiliy Fet, an exterminator with NYC's pest control, who brings valuable expertise to the problem. Another potential ally is young hoodlum, Gus Elizalde, who becomes aware of the nature of the enemy after a violent encounter with a zombie.

Action reaches a crescendo as Eph and his allies do their best to kill the Old World Master. But, as this first episode ends, the latter finds a particularly cruel way of striking back, mankind's continuing existence hangs on a thread, and New World Masters choose a sun hunter. The Strain is a made-for-the-movies winner, that I expect will attract a cult following. Despite my distaste for horror, I can't wait to see this first episode on the big screen - and to read the next. Don't miss The Strain.

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