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Terrifying vampire virus tale feeds on our darkest fears

Posted by GoreMaster Special Effects on June 24, 2009

Gulliermo del Toro and his new book "The Strain"

Gulliermo del Toro and his new book "The Strain"

Dan Murphy – Buffalo News

   The creative genius who made “Pan’s Labyrinth” one of the creepiest and most innovative movies of the last few years is taking a bite out of the vampire genre, and the result is an imaginative and genuinely frightening mashup of “Dracula” and “Outbreak.”

   Written by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, “The Strain” is Part One of a trilogy that takes the vampire genre into bold new territory while still staying grounded in the classical motifs established by Bram Stoker and Romanian folklore. These vampires aren’t the suave, brooding Romantic figures of Lord Byron, Anne Rice, or the “Twilight” series. These are nasty, rotting revenants that soil themselves as they feed and bed down in dirt and filth.

   And forget all about the dainty little bite marks on the side of the neck left by the post-Stoker vamps. These undead literally transform into infected new creatures, their anatomy morphing into something both hideous and wonderfully practical. Their jaws disjoint like nightmarish Pez dispensers and they lash out with a whiplike stinger that can extend up to six feet. This new tool neatly slashes the throat, allowing the vampire to feed, and giving it more of a middle-range attack.

   The physical transformation is nicely explained as the hero of the novel, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, is able to dissect one of the creatures and explain exactly what he sees going on beneath the surface. Del Toro and Hogan take vampire mythology and make it seem disturbingly realistic, providing basic medical explanations and couching the vampire epidemic threatening Manhattan in post-9/11 paranoia and fear. Yet they still weave in a folkloric origin story and honor classical conceits, introducing a wizened Van Helsing character (Abraham Setrakian), and preserving the vampires’ susceptibility to direct sunlight, inability to traverse moving water, and need for hibernation during daylight hours.

   The novel starts with an intriguing opening. A trans-Atlantic flight from Berlin arrives at JFK airport, touching down safely but coming to a halt before arriving at its gate. The plane suddenly goes quiet; all of its blinds are drawn. Airport crews are unable to enter the sealed and unresponsive craft, and a panic begins to build as fears of terrorism build.

Just as emergency crews begin cutting into the fuselage to try to board the plane, one of the emergency doors suddenly opens, as if released from inside. Virtually every passenger and crew member is dead, with no signs of trauma, biological weapons, or any other cause of death. Four passengers, seated in different areas of the plane, inexplicably survive with no memory of what occurred. Unbeknownst to everyone, an ancient stowaway had boarded the flight.

   The mysterious plane’s arrival coincides with a solar eclipse that plunges most of the Eastern seaboard into darkness. When the sunlight returns, New York City is no longer the same; especially when all of the bodies of the flight victims suddenly vanish from the morgue.

   The most frightening aspect of “The Strain” is the way Del Toro and Hogan compare the spread of vampirism to a viral epidemic and explore how utterly unprepared a metropolitan city like New York would be in the face of an unforeseen — and uncontainable — epidemic. Within days, there is anarchy in the streets; within weeks, most of the world could be killed.

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  “The glycoprotein has amazing binding characteristics,” a CDC analyst tells Goodweather. “This little bugger doesn’t merely hijack the host cell—it fuses with the RNA. Melds with it. Consumes it. — This could replicate and replicate and replicate.’— Eph’s head was swimming. It made too much sense. The virus overwhelmed and transformed the cell. . just as the vampire overwhelmed and transformed the victim. The vampires were viruses incarnate.”

   “The Strain” is the first part of an epic trilogy, an engrossing war between humanity and an enveloping darkness. The entire fate of the human race is at stake. By the end of the first book, the death toll — including both humans and vampires —is staggering. Manhattan becomes a gore-strewn killing field.

   Del Toro (who directed the 2002 vampire film “Blade II”) and Hogan have created a gripping page-turner that’s bound to be one of the hottest novels of the year. The scenes are outlined in vivid detail, and a film or TV miniseries adaptation is a natural.

The next two parts of the trilogy are scheduled to be released in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

  “The Strain” is a captivating thrill ride that injects new life into the vampire genre. More importantly, it’s a horror novel that’s actually frightening. Its monsters are so fully rendered, its scenes so well-crafted, that the story takes over your imagination. It will give you nightmares and make you think you see something moving out of the corner of your eye when you’re walking to your car at night (these things literally happened to me several times while reading this).

   It is an incredible fiction debut for Del Toro, who shows that his eye for detail and dark imagination are not limited to film.

In terms of sheer horror and atmosphere, “The Strain” can stand beside the best of Stephen King or Peter Straub. It combines the elemental fears of antiquity with the unique fear and anxiety of an age of terrorist threats and biological weapons. It’s the quintessential horror story of this decade.

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