This book has an interesting history behind it. Back in 2006 movie director Guillermo del Toro started developing a TV series with Fox. For unknown reasons the series never happened, but del Toro retained ownership of the scripts, story outline and character arcs he'd spent some time and effort creating. With his movie calendar fully booked up for the next decade, he clearly wouldn't be able to bring the project to the screen by himself either, so he decided to team up with thriller writer Chuck Hogan to turn the story into a trilogy of novels. With the story and character arcs already conceived, the writing proceeded pretty quickly. The first book, The Strain, is released next month and will be followed by The Devouring next year and the as-yet-untitled third book in 2011.
The book opens in 2010 when a Boeing 777 flying from Germany lands at John F. Kennedy airport, New York City. Moments after landing and turning off the runway, the plane suddenly goes dark. All communications are lost and rescue teams can't get inside. When they eventually do enter the plane, they find that all but four of the 300-odd passengers and crew are dead, killed by unknown means. The four survivors are taken to hospital, but then disappear.
At the same time, an elderly and frail billionaire, Eldritch Palmer, flies into New York on a mysterious mission. Another old man, Treblinka concentration camp survivor and pawn shop owner Abraham Setrakian, realises that the moment he has been awaiting for almost seventy years has arrived. An ancient compact has been broken and an ancient curse has been unleashed upon New York. The exponential curve of this curse will see the city destroyed in one week and the entire United States in three months, unless it is stopped.
The Strain is rollicking good entertainment. Those looking for literature which addresses the musings of the human soul best look elsewhere. This book is a combined thriller, horror story and action yarn with some sweet explosions, a frankly unnecessary number of decapitations and gloriously over-the-top action sequences (reading about a ninety-year-old man hurling himself into battle with a silver sword and massive UV-generating explosive device is unusual, to say the least). Del Toro's influence is clear, from the unpleasant descriptions of various creatures' anatomies to his gleeful depiction of violence (clearly gleaned from his Hellboy experiences), whilst experienced thriller writer Hogan gives a steadier sense of pace to proceedings. The first half of the book builds a palpable sense of dread and horror, with a creepy eclipse thrown in as well, the writers cheerfully not caring that New York City won't see another eclipse for eighty years: maybe they've been watching Heroes? The tension of the first half is then released in the second half, when the gloves come off and wholesale destruction kicks in.
The book has some interesting protagonists, with CDC Dr. Ephraim Goodweather as our main POV on events. Setrakian is a font of exposition who unusually shrugs off the 'elderly mentor' role to mix it up with the bad guys and also provides the most genuinely disturbing scenes in the novel, as he flashes back to WWII and his initial encounter with the horror in the concentration camp. Unfortunately, the fact that Goodweather's superiors don't believe him about how serious the outbreak is and its true extent means that he has to rebel against the system and act as a rogue agent for the good of the people, which is a bit corny, but the writers pull it off so fair enough.
The Strain (****) is tremendous, page-turning fun and is fuelled by one of the more innovative imaginations working in cinema today backed up by a solid thriller writer. It will be published in the UK by HarperCollins and by William Morrow in the USA, both on 2 June 2009. Del Toro is interviewed about the book here.