Thanks to Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, vampires have become pathetic things—pouting, melancholy heartthrobs who glitter like diamonds when exposed to sunlight. But as those limp-wristed vamps delicately apply their guyliner, Guillermo del Toro's vampires have been lurking in the shadows—ready and willing to fuck some shit up.
Genre auteur del Toro is most famous for his 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, but as anyone who's seen his 2002 action flick Blade II can attest, the dude's take on vampires is as inspired as anything in Pan's. Del Toro's diseased, asexual vampires lunge and screech, their slimy insides shooting out of their mouths to impale their victims. In The Strain—a new novel co-written by del Toro and Chuck Hogan—people scream, viscera splatters, and, thankfully, vampires regain their status as monsters rather than pin-ups.
The Strain is merely the first book in a planned trilogy, but it effectively sets the stage: At New York's JFK Airport, a Boeing 777 lands—and its lights go dark and its radio falls silent. Shortly after Dr. Ephraim Goodweather of the Centers for Disease Control hits the tarmac, an ominous infection starts to crawl through the city.
As panic grows, Ephraim grimly declares, "We need to get on top of the physiopathology of this thing"—and, appropriately enough for a book that makes you sound out "physiopathology," The Strain's autopsy-filled first half feels like a mash-up of CSI and Blade II. By the fast-paced latter half, though, New York is in the grip of a full-on vamp invasion, and The Strain is swiping enough from Blade II—from the physical characteristics of vampires to the pulpy tone—that one half-expects Ephraim to team up with a glowering Wesley Snipes.
Which isn't a bad thing: Despite the fact that The Strain's writing veers from melodramatic ("These vampires are viruses incarnate, and they are going to burn through this city until there are none of us left") to bewildering (the Boeing 777's wing panels are inexplicably described as being "straight up like Paula Abdul"), del Toro and Hogan tell an engaging, fun, and genuinely creepy story. This is the sort of earnest tale that begins with the phrase "Once upon a time," in which modern-day Van Helsings traipse around Brooklyn swinging silver swords, and in which the phrase "the foul smell of fresh, hot vampire piss" barely makes one raise an eyebrow. It's not fine literature, but it's a hell of a lot of fun—and I'll take it over Twilight any day.