Beyond being a wonderful tale that combines real horror (the violence perpetuated on each side in the Spanish battles is pretty brutal) with fantasy, del Toro created creatures that borrowed elements from stories we've heard before and gave them a mighty twist. The twists created a visual world unlike anything we've ever seen on film. He also created a fantasy world for the girl that is far closer to the original Grimm's Fairy Tales than the more sanitized versions that came out later. The fantasy world is no less disturbing and violent than the one in the real world, but here, at least, the young girl's importance is acknowledged where, in the real world, she is viewed as nothing more than a nuisance who is barely tolerated.
In 2009, del Toro, with American novelist Chuck Hogan (best known for the novel Prince of Thieves which became the Ben Affleck film The Town), published the first of a trilogy of novels which rethought the vampire myth. Just as he did Pan's Labyrinth, he also reinvents here the way fairy tales function. He and Hogan envision a vampire not based on an eastern European tale, but rather one that can trace its origins right back to one of God's fallen archangels. In other words, this is simultaneously a reinterpretation of the vampire story and the story of Satan. The first novel, The Strain (2009), tells the story of The Master (the youngest of seven “Ancients” who have lived for an eternity) coming to America through the assistance of a corrupt billionaire. The airplane lands at JFK Airport outside of New York where all passengers are dead or near dead. The Center for Disease Control is contacted and Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of the CDC's rapid response unit, is dispatched with his team to examine and contain the problem.
|Guillermo del Toro|
The novel, and the following sequels, The Fall (2010) and The Night Eternal (2011), trace Goodweather and his gang as they try, often in vain, to conquer The Master and save humanity. The Strain ends with a temporary defeat of the creature; The Fall is, as the title suggests, about how humanity falls; while The Night Eternal examines both good and bad side of humanity (many humans side with the vamps for purely selfish reasons) and how Goodweather and his band of believers battle this infection. And that is how del Toro and Hogan depict the vampires. They are a virus. The vamps first line of attack are hundreds of white worms that move under their skin. When a vamp is damaged by silver weapons (that and ultra violet light are humanity's main weapons against the vampires), their blood runs white and the worms that come out, if they get on a human's skin, can burrow into flesh and cause an infection that begins the vampiric transformation. The vampires themselves don't come up to you and bite you on the neck and suck your blood. Rather, once transformed, the host bodies change. The organs are replaced and within the throat a stinger forms. The stinger can extend six feet, not unlike a frog's tongue. It is the stinger that drains the humans of their blood. Other changes is that The Master actually takes over a host body. This allows it to move from body to body over the generations as each one begins to break down due to attacks or just the long passage of time.
|The Master in the also-published graphic novel version|
The other problems are the characters. None of the humans are particularly well formed. Eph is a cypher who is set up originally as the three books' overarching hero, but because he becomes so wrapped up (repetitiously so) in rescuing his son, he contemplates betraying the humans in order to win his son's freedom from The Master. I don't buy any of this. Sure he loves his son, but it just never plays. It was clearly an attempt to give the character a crisis, but it verges too often on the unbelievable. The rest of the humans are either craven clichés (the main head of the CDC betrays the humans and sides with the vamps) or are blanks in my mind's eye. When I read a well-written novel, whether literary or pulp, I can always create in my mind what the characters look like. In these particular books, I never get a sense of how any of these people appear, and I think that might be because the authors are so wrapped up in describing The Master and the other vampires that they never bother to give us much to work with where the humans are concerned.
And yet, the world they create, and particularly the effort they put into reconfiguring the vampire myths, make these three novels still worth reading. If nothing else, they are never boring. Just don't get too wrapped up in the characters, but rather concentrate instead on the theme del Toro loves to pursue and the creatures he also loves to create.