If there's anything more insatiable than a vampire, it's the public's appetite for vampire tales. The trick for an author or filmmaker is to vary the formula just enough (teen vampires!) to suck back in those of us who have sworn off vampires (and serial killers) for good. In the case of The Strain, the big lure is not what's inside the book but the name of Guillermo del Toro as co-author (with Chuck Hogan) on the cover. Who among the fans of Mimic,The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth wouldn't want to see what this gifted film director can do with a vampire novel—or any novel, especially since the list of moviemakers who turn novelist is so weirdly short (Jean Renoir and then …?). Can that fantastic visual imagination make the leap to the page? The answer is a qualified yes. There are plenty of arresting, vividly imagined moments in this page turner. But once you've turned all those pages, you're done. There's no equivalent to the feeling you have when you're finished watching Pan's Labyrinth—i.e., can we see that again?
Instead of a ship whose passengers are all dead when the ship docks, this time it's a jet airliner full of murdered victims. But the big black coffin with dirt inside is the same in both stories. Holy water and garlic don't work in this version—they were, we are told, merely the products of "one Victorian author's fevered Irish imagination, and the religious climate of the day." The fangs are missing in this version, too, replaced by a fleshy appendage that pops out like that second mouth in the Alien movies. But the blood lust is the same, and sunlight still roasts the undead. The Strain proves that you can mess with the vampire story, but you can't mess too much.
The overarching concept—the idea that ties the story together and gives it a bit of elegance—gets a nod in the title: vampires as virus. Del Toro and Hogan get points for making their hero a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control, for whom dealing with the vampires is the same as containing a virulent plague. It's an elegant simile, since plagues claim their victims much like vampires, and frighten us irrationally no matter how much science we know. The best parts of The Strain are the best part of any vampire story—it's a fairy tale for adults. But vampire tales have a secondary and too often overlooked appeal: they're great trash. Take away the pulp aspect, and you take away the fun. No worries on that score here. The Strain is no Salem's Lot, surely the greatest modern vampire tale, but it's good enough to make us break that vow to swear off vampire stories. And, yes, we're hoping for a movie version.