“The Strain” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Strain, the first book in its trilogy, is so many things. It’s a story about revenge, loss, the strive to survive, chaos and the destruction of society, fighting against evil. It’s a story about individuals driven by greed, anger, love. It’s a science fiction novel, both a novel steeped in science and fairytale. It’s dystopian. It’s a nightmare.

Quick summary:

On September 24, 2010, a flight from Berlin lands at New York’s JFK Airport, but no one disembarks and the pilots do not contact the control tower. It’s as if the plane is dead. When personnel from the CDC rapid-response team, doctors Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather and Nora Martinez, enter the plane, they find everyone dead, but no sign of how they died. However, there is a sinister feeling in the air, a tingle of fear, and as they unload the plane, they find a huge, ornately carved coffin in the cargo hold. This occurs at the cusp of a total solar eclipse with the city on edge waiting for something to happen.

Only one man in New York City truly knows what is about to happen because he has experienced it before — Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian. He tries to warn Eph and Nora, but no one believes him until it’s too late, until the eclipse starts and the bodies from the plane start to disappear and there are increasing reports of people attacking each other.

A couple hours later in Manhattan, rat exterminator Vasiliy Fet notices something odd about the city’s rat population — they are seen more frequently in the open during daylight. He realizes that something must have displaced the rat population, something large. His investigation takes him to the site of the former World Trade Center, where construction crews are wary about entering the tunnels. Apparently, some crew members enter but never come out.

When he saw a man attack a family in Times Square, Augustin “Gus” Elizalde, a Mexian gangster who’s trying to do better, protects them, killing the man in the process. Unfortunately, the cops refuse to see it that way and instead charge him for killing the white man. The man had also attacked Gus’s friend, Felix, who the cops also cuffed and threw in jail. There, Gus meets Setrakian, who warns Gus to kill Felix, who’s becoming increasingly ill. He tells Gus that his friend is no longer who he was but is becoming an ancient evil. Gus can’t bring himself to kill his friend, but he keeps Setrakian’s advice in mind and watches Felix as he succumbs to his illness. As Gus and Felix are being transported to another jail, Felix attacks the other prisoners in the van and Gus fights for his life to escape.

In Manhattan, Eldritch Palmer, an ailing, old businessman who’s one of the wealthiest men in the world, listens to the news and other reports of the dead plane at JFK and the attacks in the streets and is elated because the Master has arrived and a new life will soon be granted to him.

“Every mundanity of life grows infinitely more precious in the face of impending death.”

My thoughts:

Avoiding spoilers is like skipping landmines and I don’t want to spoil this book for you.

If you haven’t watched the TV show, which is how I learned about this book, then I highly suggest that you read it without knowing much more than what I’ve said above. I’ll only add that though this is a horror novel, it’s not very scary. It is, however, unsettling because the events seem possible.

Also, the book straddles both the horror and science-fiction genres because it contains elements of both in equal amounts. Well, so it seems to me though I’m not well versed in either genre. The Strain has a pulsing wariness running through it. When the story begins, we (and the characters) sense that something bad is about to happen and we are wary as we wait for it. And when the bad thing happens, we are wary whenever the characters encounter difficult situations where escape seems impossible because if they don’t make it, then who will save New York and warn the country?

There is also lots of science in the story, which gives it the illusion of truth and makes its events seem plausible. I’ll discuss this in the spoiler section below, but an explanation is given for everything in the book.

I didn’t know of these books prior to watching the TV show, which first aired on FX in 2014. I began watching it last year and was immediately hooked. It’s not a show, or book, for the faint at heart. They are both gruesome and violent, similar to The Walking Dead, though not with as great complexity and depth (it has these qualities but in comparing the two, I’d say Walking Dead is better).

Still The Strain, both the TV and the book, is great in its own right. Both the TV show and the book start out slow and takes a while for the pace to build, but the wait, that slow pace, is totally worth it. In the TV show, the slow pace is needed to build a solid foundation to get you acquainted with the characters, and in the book, the slow pace is needed for the same reason but also to foreshadow what is to come. Of the two, I was less patient with the slow pace at the beginning of the book because the narration also hopped to different perspectives, which made the delay obvious. I guess I wasn’t as impatient with the TV show because I started watching Season 3 thinking it was Season 1 so when I did see the very first episode of the show, I already knew what would happen.

But back to the book: An omniscient narrator is used to relay the story but it’s told from different perspectives, including minor character perspectives, which I think works because it lets us know what is happening in places where the major characters aren’t present. It makes the scope of the events loom larger and makes the possibility of a solution seem impossible. How can everyone be cured? Which is what both the characters and the readers must ask themselves because the cause of “death” of the people on the plane could be explained as a virus that is quickly spreading across New York City and the only way to stop it is to eliminate that “strain.”

As for the setting of the book, which I mention because it’s a major element of the story, I thought it was a good one for containing the plot. New York City is an island, therefore making it easy to contain the characters, the “strain,” and the plot, and to tell a tighter story. I think if the story was set elsewhere, such as Washington, D.C., it would make it a lot harder to manage the story and show clearly how the strain is spreading. Also, setting the story in New York City harkens to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which is mentioned in the story, because the virus in this book is used like a weapon. It alters individuals and turns people against each other, relegating society to its baser self where its driven by survival of the fittest. It is meant to cause chaos and overpower a species — humans.

I really want folks to either read this book or watch the TV show, the fourth season will start on July 16, so I’ll stop here to avoid spoiling anything. I’ll only say that the writing is pretty straightforward though descriptive and it will suck you into the story and the gory parts will stand out.

Overall: ★★★★★

Of course, I gave this a high rating. I loved the story and couldn’t stop thinking about it after the book was done, or after watching all three seasons of the TV show (obviously, because that’s what led to this review). I highly recommend both the book and the TV show, if you aren’t squeamish.

This is one of few instances where I think the TV show is as good as the book; though I probably think this because I saw the show first. Both are 5 stars to me, so I recommend that you start with whichever you want to.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

Yes, buy the book, read it, and come back to discuss it with me.

All three seasons of the TV show are available on Hulu, so go binge on it before the fourth season starts.

Quotes from the book:

“The pawnbroker provides a service no one else can. He is the poor man’s banker, someone people can come to and borrow twenty-five dollars with no concern as to credit history, employment, or references.”

“She looked up through the filtered lenses at the murdering moon in all its dark triumph, worried that she might never see the sun again.”

“The appearance of a rat symbolizes human anxiety and fear.”

“The tunnels around him whispered with winds that fluttered his dark cloak, trains screaming in the distance, iron clashing against steel, like the scream of a world suddenly aware of his coming.”


Spoilers:

I had to include spoilers because OH MY GOD! This book, this story, is awesome!

Just so you know, I’ll go back and forth between the book and the TV show because I couldn’t help thinking of the show as I read. Season 1 stuck pretty close to the book.

For me, the best thing about the story is the vampire-zombies. I call them vampire-zombies because they have qualities of both creatures. The turned humans, called strigoi, are parasitic (literally, like a big-ass mosquito) in nature like the vampire because they feed on human blood, have pale skin like the vampire, avoid daylight, and hunt at night, etc. So, yea, they are vampires and the Master is basically Dracula. But his minions, the strigoi, are sort of mindless like zombies and only think of killing and feeding. If the Master wants to give more responsibility to them, he can make them more aware and intelligent and less zombie-like. Basically, the Master is the center of their consciousness and is in some ways their consciousness.

Anyway, what really interests me is how a person becomes a vampire, which is detailed and discussed in the show, but it really stands out in the book because they get really scientific and shit in it. The turning is described like a virus, which is why the arrival of the Master is like a terrorist attack, because he basically hijacked the plane and killed everyone, and the actual turning of humans to vampires is like a virus because you don’t immediately turn once “bitten.” You are first infected.

When a strigoi feeds on a human, it infects the human with a parasitic worm that enters the body and alters it to suit its needs. While the body metamorphoses, the human becomes increasing ill and begins craving blood. Of all the physical changes, the most drastic is the development of a muscular organ below the tongue that can extract from the mouth to latch onto humans to feed on them. Human organs that aren’t needed as a strigoi shrivel and die. And since they don’t reproduce sexually, there is no need for the male sexual organ. I was so surprised when Bolivar’s dick fell off in the toilet in the show. It was more jarring there than in the book. We don’t see it happen, but we do hear the plop.

But really, the strigoi’s body changes and the parasitic worm are both fascinating because they are inspired by things that are real, which I learned by listening to this podcast (Stuff to Blow Your Mind, episode 174). Apart from dicks falling off, the strigoi also lose their nose, which seems to be influenced by extreme cases of untreated syphilis. As for the parasitic worm, it was inspired by the horsehair worm (it looks gross and creepy), which is long and thin like the tail hair of a horse.

The vampire attacks are the spreading of corruption, which is also interesting because the people they seek to attack first are those they love the most, those they felt a strong attachment to as a human. This makes the struggle of some characters, Eph, so much more interesting because he was in a child custody battle with his wife and when she turned, that battle became even more brutal and vital. Now instead of just trying to get some time with his son, he has to keep his son away from his mom to prevent him being turned.

And gosh, I so like the characters, though I have the TV show ones jumbled in my head with the book ones. They are the same, yet a bit different. Of them all, Fet is my favorite and I think that’s because of the actor who plays him in the show — Kevin Durand. I’m not a fan of Eph, he’s an asshole, and though he’s a bad dude, I can’t help but pity Eldritch Palmer. It’s obvious he has hurt for a long time and is so cold at heart that he doesn’t realize that in hurting the world, he’s also hurting himself (I feel the same about Mr. White in Breaking Bad). Thomas Eichorst, who appears in the show but not in this book, is another favorite character though he is evil. I also pity him. And Nora is better in the show because in this first book, she isn’t very prominent or says much. This book is basically all about the guys and how they must save the world. The women are all sidelined.

Anyway, I’ll stop here because this spoiler section made this review quite long. I have lots more to say, but I’d just prefer to have someone to discuss it with. Everyone I know are too squeamish to watch the show much less read the book. 😦

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15 thoughts on ““The Strain” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

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    • Yes! It was kinda freaky because the way things were explained made it seem like the stuff in the book could actually happen.
      Comparing the vamp in ‘Salem’s Lot and the one in this, I find Guillermo’s vamp more unsettling because he’s less mythological and more modern in the way he “infects” people and turn them into vamps and his minions. He is more of our time in how he spreads corruption and influence peeps.

      Liked by 1 person

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