Picking up the narrative only a week after the events in The Strain, del Toro and Hogan's 2009 novel, The Fall continues the story of a beleaguered humanity under attack by "the Master," the leader of a particularly aggressive and virulent strain of vampires. And that is exactly what vampirism is in this universe: a virus that infects its host and converts it into something other than human, right from the cellular level.
In this second volume of what is to be a trilogy, the heroes from the previous book return: Ephraim Goodweather, the disgraced doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and his son Zack; Abraham Setrakian, Holocaust survivor and vampire hunter; Vasiliy, former exterminator, and Gus, a gang-banger with a particular knack for killing vamps. Joining the team in an uneasy alliance are "the Ancients," members of the same vampiric race as the Master, but opposed to his destructive plans for humanity, which threaten their own shadowy existence.
The Strain had a very downbeat ending: Ephraim's ex-wife Kelly was taken by the Master and "turned," and she spends much of The Fall hunting for Zack, her "human affection" having turned to "vampiric need." In the meantime, the entire infrastructure of human civilization is crumbling as the Master and his minions run amok in New York, feeding and killing at will, infecting everyone with the vampiric virus and orchestrating multiple nuclear catastrophes. The slightly more sedate subplot to all this general mayhem is the hunt for a very special book, the Occido Lumen, that contains the secrets of vampire history and possibly the means to defeat them.
As one might imagine, The Fall is quite action-packed; it's easy to assume that this is del Toro's influence as a movie director, but his films such as Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, despite their phantasmagorical premises, are essentially elegant, character-driven stories. And crime writer Chuck Hogan's work is often more about human relationships than just cops and robbers. It seems, then, that the pairing of Hogan and del Toro has resulted in something that isn't exactly greater than the sum of its parts.
There's a certain disjointedness to the narrative that was also present in The Strain, though perhaps less obviously; the earlier book had a terrific opening, redolent of John Marks's creepy and ferociously satirical Fangland. But The Fall, despite moving at a good clip and having a cheering amount of gore, never fully jells.
Part of the problem is lack of emotional connection. Obviously, the reader is supposed to care most for Zack, the classic child in peril, and for Ephraim, battling alcoholism as well as vampires. All the right notes are hit for them to be sympathetic characters, but Gus, Vasiliy and especially Setrakian are more interesting.
The flashbacks to Setrakian's original encounter with the Master in the Treblinka extermination camp are engrossing, and he is the most three-dimensional character. The writers also fall into the trap of having the people we're supposed to think of as likeable do completely idiotic things. Yes, the world is ending, and maybe not everyone will make the best decisions under those circumstances, but there are some genuinely eye-rolling moments.
Causing further problems are the abrupt shifts from past- to present-tense narrative during bits of exposition; these could have been handled more seamlessly by keeping everything past tense. The Strain suffers from exactly the same issue, so it's unlikely that The Night Eternal, the scheduled third book, will be any different.
But since del Toro and Hogan have almost completely destroyed both the planet and the human race by the end of The Fall, it's almost impossible not to long for part 3 to arrive quickly so we can see how it all winds up. Given the bleakness of the first two books, one assumes there will still be no joy in the third - but in many ways that's a good thing. As del Toro himself put it in a recent interview, he is trying to make vampires "less of a date and more of a predator."
And he and Hogan have certainly succeeded. Here at last is a return to the old-school vampire: a grotesque, blood-sucking monster that is literally a different species, a contagion, a thing that sees humans as cattle. That in itself is a tremendous relief, and almost feels like a reinvention of the genre.
While flawed and occasionally melodramatic, The Fall is still an enjoyable roller-coaster of a ride, though beginning with the first book in the trilogy is highly recommended; volume 2 might otherwise leave the reader a bit at sea, since this is very clearly not a stand-alone novel.
Sandra Kasturi is a Toronto writer, editor, poet and publisher, and the author of The Animal Bridegroom.