'Strain' is vividly drawn

  • Article by: KATHE CONNAIR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2009 - 2:21 PM

BOOK REVIEW A thriller writer and the author of "Pan's Labyrinth" team up on a surreal, suspenseful mystery about a plane full of dead people and, yes, there are vampires.

Chuck Hogan is known for his taut thrillers, Guillermo del Toro for his surreal horror films (including "Pan's Labyrinth"), and their new book, "The Strain" (William Morrow, 416 pages, $26.99), brings out the best of each.

The premise is riveting from the start, as a Boeing 777 lands safely at JFK International and then ... nothing. No one leaves the plane, there are no calls to 911. SWAT teams discover that the passengers are dead in their seats and it's up to Dr. Ephraim Goodweather of the Centers for Disease Control to figure out what happened.

As the victims are parceled out to morgues across New York City, autopsies reveal that there's no blood in their veins. Instead, a whitish substance, maybe some new strain of virus, seems to be taking over their organs, alive even when its hosts are dead. Plenty for an epidemiologist to sink his teeth into.

And then, when night falls, somehow the bodies disappear.

You've got it: They've become vampires and they're loose in Gotham City. Only one man is truly prepared for this -- a pawnshop owner and Holocaust survivor who walks with a silver-tipped cane. Can he persuade Ephraim to think beyond the bounds of scientific, medical knowledge? Can they stop a really creepy threat to humanity that is growing exponentially? Will Eph ever get to hang out and play video games with his son again?

Personally, I'm not a big fan of the stinky, stinger-endowed vampires and the requisite Nazi subplot. A swine flu pandemic is enough to terrify me. But these scenes are so vividly drawn that you can almost smell the moldering soil that clings to the undead, feel their unnatural heat.

Not least among the characters is the city of New York itself, with its rat-infested subway tunnels and the still-painful scar of Ground Zero. And the page-turning suspense is occasionally injected with humor, as when a goth rocker turns the tables on parasitic paparazzi.

Horror fans no doubt will anxiously await the next installments in this trilogy, and the movie that's sure to follow.

Kathe Connair is a features copy editor at the Star Tribune.

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