Friday, March 12, 2010

The Dead? Gravol, Fast!


The Strain: Volume 1 of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009): We are, perhaps, overprovided with vampire novels right now. If there's one thing this novel by film director del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies, Blade 2) gets right, it's to resituate its vampires in the realms of the abject and the horrifying. These may be the least sexy vampires in literary history.

Other than this resituating, The Strain is a competent, derivative novel that sometimes veers close to Tom Clancy territory, with chunks of undigested information on various biological, social and technological topics spotted throughout the text. There's lots of info on rats, guns, airport security, and the workings of the Centres for Disease Control, if that's your sort of thing. Basically, an evil vampire lord conspires with the evil richest man in the world to vampirize first New York and then the world. Various plucky people from various disciplines band together to try to stop the vampire plague. As this is a trilogy, we pretty much end with everything unresolved.

I don't know how much actual writing del Toro did -- I'd guess that he talked things over with Hogan and gave him some rough idea of what he wanted from the plot and characters prior to letting Hogan assemble the thing. And assembled it sometimes feels, as Frankenstein-like, Hogan has stitched together a vampire from other vampires of myth and fiction. Vampires and monsters in movies del Toro has directed supply a lot of material here, along with stuff from other people's work.

Like the vampires who feed on other vampires in Blade 2, The Strain's vampires have hinged jaws. Like the adult alien in the Alien movies, they also have a secondary mouth that can shoot up to six feet out of their mouths. As in the Blade movies ( derived from the Blade comics), there are ancient ruling vampires who normally observe certain rules in their relationship with humanity (the primary rules being, stay hidden and don't eat the entire food supply). As with Stephen Dorff's rebel vampire in Blade, the rebel vampire Sardu intends to overthrow the normal hierarchy and lift himself to ultimate power. The vampire contagion lurks within nasty little worms that infest all vampires and can turn a normal human being into a vampire, reminding me of the ice worms from the first-season X-Files episode "Ice."

There's also a Van Helsing-like figure who's been fighting vampires since the Holocaust. There are Ultraviolet bombs lifted straight from Blade 2, and other familar anti-vampire weapons that include silver swords, ultraviolet flashlights and a nail gun that shoots silver projectiles (the last seems like something out of a Quake game I never saw). Sunlight is the vampire's greatest enemy, though garlic and holy water and religious icons have no effect. All in all, it's a bit of a mish-mash, padded out somewhat so as to occupy an entire trilogy.

The one innovation (or perhaps more accurately extrapolation) del Toro and Hogan present caused me a moment of hilarity which perhaps was not the intention. Vampires of myth and pre-Dracula vampire stories (say, J. Sheridan le Fanu's mid-19th-century "Carmilla") were often described as being found in coffins filled with blood and effluence. The Strain explains this by positing a vampire species with a very rudimentary digestive system without much storage capacity. Basically, while gorging themselves or immediately afterwards, vampires crap and piss themselves. A LOT. I can't remember the last novel that involved so many underground pursuits enabled by the urine and shit trails left to glow in black light by a vampire species seriously in need of Depends. Actually, I can't think of any precedent for prodigious vampire defecation. So kudos, del Toro and Hogan, kudos I say!

Vampires also lack normal human genitalia -- several days into one's vampiric transformation, everything down there is replaced by one cloacha, sort of like a hen's. And yes, there is the unavoidable scene where some guy's shrivelled, rotted weiner falls off to reveal this new genital state of affairs. I did say these vampires were spectacularly unsexy, right?

Like I said, competent, occasionally hilarious in what looks to be a completely unintentional way, and almost endlessly derivative. Not recommended.

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