The NY City Hall subway station lies beneath City Hall Park just blocks from the World Trade Center construction site. Now fallen on hard times, the ornate subway station is featured in The Strain, a Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan horror novel. The station becomes the lair of a visiting European vampire, who is attempting to rule NY by turning everyone into blood sucking monsters. The plot of this novel, the first of a trilogy, is grim and bloody.
The abandoned station was once a grand attraction. Forgotten New York has this to say about the site:
Originally opened in 1904, this ornate station was the showpiece of the new New York City subway system, with arches and vaulted ceilings, elegant Guastavino and colored glass tiling, skylights, and brass chandeliers.
The Strain announces boldly on its cover “A Vampire Epic—Terrifying”. I picked up the thick mass-market paperback from the bed & breakfast bookshelf and hefted its 600 pages as if weighing a candidate for heaviest vacation-read of the year. Not deterred in the least, I opened the cover and settled in to read one of the most swashbuckling vampire books I have ever met.
Like most New York tourists, the vampire leader, ingeniously called The Master, arrived by Jet at JFK. And he did so in a spectacular way that reviewer Ian Brooks of The Guardian describes this way:
Flight 753 from Berlin lands without a hitch at JFK International Airport, taxis towards the terminal and then abruptly shuts down. The emergency services are mobilized and the incoming jets are hastily rerouted, while Flight 753 simply sits out there on the tarmac like some beached leviathan. Inside, at first glance, the crew members and passengers appear all to be dead in their seats.
The Master (and his coffin) were aboard the ill-fated jet; a vampire, he fed on the passengers and crew during the flight, saving the pilot and co-pilot for last. This is a grim way to begin a novel, but the reader was warned, if they read the book’s cover. The gore doesn’t end there; expect more, much more.
The beginning of The Strain should remind you of another famous vampire story: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Remember the sailing ship Demeter with Count Dracula and his vampire “sisters” in the hold. The ship ran aground at Whitby, England with the dead Captain lashed to the helm. The salvage crew found the dead crew members below decks. They were several large coffin-like boxes of earth in the hold.
Whitby, England is a small fishing village that lies along the edge of the North York Moors at the mouth of the River Esk. The story of the Ship Demeter was loosely based on a true story. A ship named the Demetrius foundered off Whitby’s coast and emptied its grisly cargo of occupied coffins into the North Sea. The townspeople told the visiting Bram Stoker about the horror of discovering bodies in various stages of decomposition scattered along the beach. Stoker eagerly incorporated the blood-chilling tale into his novel, Dracula.
Del Toro and Hogan make no such historical claims for their story.
As Flight 753 sits on the runway, the airport calls the police, emergency crews, and ultimately the Center for Disease Control is given the task of sorting out the problem. A crack team of epidemiologists from the CDC races to the scene. A high-tech investigation is begun, but the results are impossible to believe: the dead are not decomposing.
While the CDC puzzles over these scientific results, the dead animate themselves and disappear from the morgue—as they return to life they head for their homes and bad things are going to happen when they arrive. NY faces a pandemic as the hundreds of victims from Flight 753 who have turned into vampires disperse throughout the city.
Fortunately, a Romanian Jew named Abraham Setrakian (think of Stoker’s character Van Helsing in Dracula) appears on the scene. Setrakian is a WW II death camp survivor, and he recognizes the evil work of The Master (that is an interesting sub-plot of The Strain). Single handedly, Setrakian convinces the leaders of the CDC team (Ephraim and Nora) that science is not the solution. He gets them pointed in the right direction and CDC begins to fight back.
Meanwhile at the World Trade Center, Vasily Fet, a city rat exterminator, notices the strange behavior of rats fleeing from the underground tunnels connecting to the construction site. Eventually, Fet will join Setrakian, Ephraim and Nora to fight the evil menace. These four will become the team that will fight The Master (and his army of vampires).
The novel is as advertised on the cover; it is a “vampire epic” and it is sufficiently “terrorizing” for a diverting vacation reading experience. Be ready for cruel attacks by vampires on their own family members; no pity is shown by the vampires and few family members escape their grasp. The Master is particularly ruthless and does not have any trace of the campy character of Stoker’s Count Dracula.
The CDC team must match cruelty with cruelty–the two ways to eliminate vampires are by melting them in direct sunlight and by separating the vampire’s head from its body. The old Rumanian swashbuckler beheads them with a long silver sword; imagine that.
The Strain is a horror story that screams for special effects that are a del Toro specialty. Unfortunately, Hogan’s writing does not give enough fireworks. The multiple attacks by the vampires loose their shock value by repetition, and except for the ancient warrior Setrakian, the team lacks charisma. The ending, however, is tense and dramatic and satisfactory for the first novel of a trilogy.
I’m glad I picked up the paperback, but I’m not sure that I will read the second volume (The Fall: Book Two of the Strain Trilogy). But, if I see it on a B&B bookshelf ….
More James Maher photos can be seen on the WWW. They are amazing! Don’t miss them.
Week 4-2012: The Strain, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009, HarperCollins e-books).