Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s second novel in The Strain trilogy, The Fall, releases today, and I have to say in several aspects it falls short of its predecessor. The Strain was creepy, thrilling and an excellent return to the roots of the vampire mythology, but The Fall almost feels like two steps backward, relying on tired themes and ideas. The Fall picks up only a short while after the end of The Strain, but the story has strayed from the footsteps of works like Dracula and Salem’s Lot and has picked up the trail of such Hollywood films as I Am Legend, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse.
Now don’t take that as an insult to the Resident Evil films. I have them all on DVD and plan on seeing the new one, even if it is in 3-D. But there is a time and a place for that kind of work, and the follow up to one of the best modern vampire stories in years is not it. Instead of a lone Master vampire, and a small group of ragtag heroes fighting an isolated outbreak of vampirism, the infection has spread across the world, and is in dozens of countries. The elder vampires have recruited a team of hunters to help combat the plague of new, unworthy vampires. Society has begun to unravel, and rioting and civil unrest stalk night alongside the new generation of monsters. It is a grim start point for a story, and it has a lot of plot lines packed tightly into it, but it still feels lackluster when compared to its predecessor.
The Fall introduces some new heroes, while also bringing back familiar faces, and going a bit more in depth into the past of some of the main characters. There was more reference to WWII and the Nazis, but every time I read the scenes, I kept recalling Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons. In The Fall, Abraham Setrakian, del Toro’s version of Van Helsing, is an aged Jew who came across a vampire preying on victims inside of concentration camps. Setrakian escaped, only to dedicate his life to pursuing his tormentor, eventually recruiting and teaching others before walking into a final showdown. This is nearly identical to the plot of Simmons novel, and the lack of originality bothered me a great deal. The biggest problem I have is that Simmons did it better, and he did it twenty years ago.
The vampire hunting team was also a bit cliché, with UV lamps, silver swords and crossbows, and all kinds of explosives it felt like I was reading pages from the script of a new Blade movie. There are several scenes where the hunters break into nests, and destroy groups of vampires with little effort, despite the fact that none of these people have any kind of combat training or experience in using the equipment they were given (unless New York City gangs have some kind of SWAT team and swordsman training camp I am not aware of). Now, it does give some good action to the story, but it nearly fractures the tenuous hold the story has on the line between plausible and absurd.
However, there are some aspects of the novel where the heroes are all too human, fragile and beautiful in their imperfection. Fet, the former rat exterminator who kills vampires with a nail gun and a pipe, is one of my favorite characters, and he takes his share of abuse and injury in the novel; and it is the same with Setrakian. He is an old man, with a heart murmur who relies on nitroglycerin pills to calm his weary body in times of stress. A new member of the group is introduced in this story as well: Angel, a retired Mexican wrestler with a bad knee. He played a hero, conquering evil and saving the innocent in his movies until his injury forced him to quit, and now wishes to reclaim that glory and fight for the little good left in the world. He is wounded and flawed, and an much more impressive character because of this. I much prefer these vulnerable, mortal heroes over the action star types like Gus, the Mexican gang member turned vampire-hunting, sword-wielding badass.
That being said, The Fall still maintained enough plot and punch to make it worth reading, and I am looking forward to the final installment. For all its shortcomings, The Fall makes up for it in two ways. The first is the Occido Lumen, a kind of vampire bible. Bound in silver, and containing information on the origin of the seven Ancients (the original vampires) the book contains centuries old lore that will not only explain how the vampires came into being, but how they can be defeated. As I have said before, I am huge sucker for origin stories, and while ancient grimoires and tomes are sort of commonplace in horror, I still love when authors use them, especially when they are used well. The back story of the book, the interludes and trouble the characters go through to find it, all of that really ties this novel together for me.
The second reason I liked the novel is the way that it ended. Not since The Empire Strikes Back have I seen such a bleak, depressing ending. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a major death and a global catastrophe. There is no sappy optimism, no saccharin sweet reunion, no plan (or even high hopes) for the future, and I applaud del Toro for it. I don’t see any point in having the middle part of a trilogy assure the readers, or audience, that all will be well. If that is the case, then there is no reason to finish the series and move on to the third. What we get with The Fall is just that: the fall of mankind, the end of our supremacy on planet earth, and the global descent into darkness, which is just as well since the next book is called The Night Eternal.
There are so many loose ends to tie up, so many mysteries to reveal, and with only one book left in the series I am very interested to see where del Toro takes the story next. I will definitely be picking up the final volume of the trilogy. I just hope that it is more like The Strain than The Fall or it could be a very disappointing ending to what was an excellent start.