Good horror requires atmosphere. I’ve stated that more than once, most recently just a few weeks ago, so this isn’t a great revelation by any means. I just feel it’s necessary to repeat because The Strain sort of gets it right. The opening scenes of the novel are full of a great deal of tension and dread, built on a foundation of pure creepiness, and that’s just in the first 40 pages or so. It could have been summarized easily, and in fact, it is on the back of the book, but you want to read those first 40 pages just to see how well the authors do it. I guarantee that if you read those first 40 pages, you’re not going to hesitate reading the next 361 just to see where it goes. And the fact of the matter is that for the first half of the book, that atmosphere carries well throughout, raising the tension and dread as the reader tries to get a sense of where things are going, all while knowing more than the main characters about what’s actually happening.
After that point, though, the quality of the writing dropped dramatically. The authors started getting more and more heavy-handed with their themes, and the story started to grow more tedious than compelling. I noticed that they used the same simile in the second book as they did in the first (being overburdened by responsibility like a top-heavy sunflower; apt enough, sure, but I’m not sure it bore repeating), and the plotting started to become more coincidental than natural. Throughout all the books, the language starts to get almost Victorian in the way that the characters speak and think. It might be a throwback to the original Dracula, but for a book set in modern times, it just sounds overdramatic. In The Fall, the main characters meet up with the ancients, who are like the Master, but more secretive, and they just decide to bankroll the characters into being full-blown hunters. Not only did it seem a little ridiculous (they collected money just in case, for just such an occasion, it seems), but it fed into things being too coincidental to be believable.
I had some issues with the way the authors tried to mesh the older mythology with current science. OK, fine, you want to include something about how vampires needed access to their home earth to stay rejuvenated, then have something in there where the vampires feel comfort from burrowing into the earth. I can accept that. But the coffin? And what possible scientific reasoning is there behind the vampires not being able to cross running water? The rest of it is explained away just fine, but those two points stuck with me as being unreasonable. And don’t even get me started with the origin of vampires that’s mentioned in the third volume.
Also, the main character, Eph, is a recovered alcoholic who, by the end of The Fall and the start of Night Eternal, is sliding back into his old habits. I kind of expected there to be some internal struggle over this, or at least some hint through his character about how hard it was to stay off the booze, but earlier in the series, he seems to be so together that he just has that kind of will power to overcome it. In fact, early on, he just seems to be a perfect character, like one of the good guys from a Koontz novel. You know, the kind who are so good as to be unbelievable? He didn’t even seem to have an issue with alcoholism, other than the authors telling us he was recovered, which made it less significant when he backslid into it. Two years pass between the end of the second book and the beginning of the third, and by then, Eph is deep into his alcoholism, but also by then, there’s enough motivation there to justify it. In fact, it’s kind of interesting to see your affections change for his character, partly because he was such a good person before his fall. It’s almost like the development that should have been in the prequel Star Wars trilogy. I’m a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of a build-up to his transition, because I feel like having a few small moments here and there where Eph considers but rejects alcohol would have better resonance with the character. Instead, we just see him drinking a lot of milk.
I wonder how much of the story was del Toro’s, and how much of it was Hogan’s. The imagery of the vampires — surrealistic, disturbing, and otherworldly — was certainly del Toro’s, but the style of the writing felt more along the lines of a standard thriller. There were moments of profundity in the narrative, and some apt observations along the way, but for the most part, the story hummed along at a busy pace, dragging the reader along. I haven’t read anything else by Hogan, but it almost seems like the ideas for the books, along with the general structure of the story, was del Toro’s, while Hogan was brought in to flesh out the series. But that’s all speculation, really.
Now, none of this is to say that the series was so bad that I didn’t finish it. The books smack of being beach-reads, mindless thrillers with enough going on to keep you turning the pages. Shoot, as soon as I finished the first book, I made a trip down to the bookstore to pick up the rest of the series. I mean, there’s no exaggeration here; I literally put the book down, got in the car, and drove over to Books-a-Million. I had to see the series through. In the end, the books don’t pretend to be anything more than that, but that first half of The Strain felt so good, so ominous, and so portentous that I thought I was going to start reading a horror trilogy that was finally going to do it right. It picked it up again by the third book, but it still felt like it was a little all over the place. I think it could have been tighter, and possibly told completely in one volume, but I definitely enjoyed the series, overall. I just feel like folks need to have these caveats in mind before they jump into the series.