Review: Guillermo del Toro follows in Dracula's footsteps in The Strain

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

The Boeing 777 arrives at JFK but goes dark soon after touching down, and it doesn't taxi to the arrival gate or respond to worried queries from the tower. A baggage handler is sent to investigate and reports that the window shades in the passenger cabin are all down, the lights in the cockpit off.

Nobody reports, or at least puts on the record, the sense of something profoundly wrong, of evil, emanating from the aircraft. They suspect that (unfortunately) mundane explanation, terrorism. Or, perhaps, a viral outbreak.

But once the emergency workers manage to get inside, where they find a packed plane filled with the corpses of international travelers who seem to have peacefully died in their seats ... once a coffin-shaped box lined with dirt is found in the cargo hold ... once autopsies reveal the passengers to have been drained of blood ... canny readers will be screaming at those authorities for their refusal to recognize the symptoms that became familiar with Dracula.

The Strain (Morrow, $26.99), by film director Guillermo del Toro and thriller writer Chuck Hogan, breaks no obvious new ground, as its vampiric plague is similar to, if in some respects a departure from, the generations of literary and filmic vampires that came before it. Oh, sure, the biological transformation of the affected victims is more carefully thought out, and there are some gooky details that should come as no surprise when one of the collaborators is the man behind Cronos and the second Blade movie. But the vampires still suck blood, the victims still transform and go after the ones they love most, and there's still a Van Helsing figure, who even shares the first name Abraham, lurking about to lead the counteroffensive on the part of the living.

What makes The Strain special, what in fact makes the trilogy it begins seems a likely candidate to join the gallery of classic vampire portrayals, is its absolute technical conviction. From the start, the authorities treat the arrival of the 777 the way you believe they would: with caution, with suspicions, with muted horror and most of all with contingency plans and procedures that made perfect sense when formulated but, you understand going in, will be wholly inadequate when it comes to staving off the supernatural threat.

You can't blame the story's protagonist, Dr. Eph Goodweather, who heads the government's response team, for his tardiness in suspecting the arrival of the creatures once posited by Bram Stoker; he does everything he's supposed to do, and more. But he's also a man of science, and not exactly negligent in delaying his transformation to vampire hunter until the terrible truth is finally shoved in his face. The result, in the early going at least, is what Dracula would have been like if written today by a writer of heavily researched nuts-and-bolts techno-thrillers. Combined with strong characterization, it's a mix that winds up being commendably scary, the most viscerally exciting vampire novel since 'Salem's Lot.

As the story ends on a cliffhanger, with the infestation of New York City far along and still getting worse, a final judgment on the story as a whole will have to wait until we receive the final two volumes. Among other things, we'd like to know how the head vamp managed his takeover of the plane without leaving any obvious signs of violence when our heroes are later able to do battle with him and not get killed immediately during the book's action climax. Something doesn't jibe there. If it's not a clue, it's a plot hole big enough for that 777 to fly through. But we're hooked enough to stick around and find out.