By Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (William Morrow)
Just in time for summer – and presciently perhaps, for the swine flu – comes “The Strain,” a sort of “Twilight” for the testosterone set, swapping romance for thrills and gore.
Writer and director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) teams with thriller writer Chuck Hogan (“The Standoff”) to create a visceral page-turner that reimagines vampirism as a virus that causes its victims’ bodies to mutate – disgustingly – into buglike creatures, stomping zombie-style around Manhattan and wreaking havoc. A disparate team of a rogue CDC doctor, rat-catcher and an Eastern European pawnshop owner come together to try to stop them.
Unlike Stephen King’s classic “The Stand,” another epic battle between good and evil involving a virus, the book never transcends genre fiction and the main characters remain staunchly two dimensional, secondary to the forward-rushing plot.
But del Toro and Hogan create vivid scenes of a New York where something has gone terribly wrong. One of the eeriest moments occurs at the beginning, when an airplane lands safely at JFK airport. It suddenly goes completely dark, all of its shades down, with no communication or 911 calls coming from the aircraft as handlers puzzle outside it.
Other creepy scenes involve a morgue filled with not-so-dead bodies and a vampire child thought dead returning home to an unsuspecting parent.
There is humour as well, as when a Goth rocker realizes he has become a vampire when he takes off his makeup and black contact lenses and looks the same underneath.
Del Toro, who has brought macabre characters to life in movies such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy,” originally wrote the book as an outline for a TV series. It is the first in a trilogy, with new volumes due out in 2010 and 2011. Sometimes the plot stretches thin, particularly a back story that harkens back to the Holocaust. But horror fans in search of a beach read will find the action moves swiftly and the violence is satisfyingly gruesome.